The Lost Cajun

The Lost Cajun believes it can eventually reach 500 locations nationwide.

The Lost Cajun Finds a Buyer, and a Path to Dream Big

With a new owner in place, the franchise is taking aim at hundreds of stores. But its culture and personality won't go anywhere.

Thirty minutes before his wedding rehearsal in Hammond, Louisiana, Raymond Griffin was handed a stack of legal papers. While that might alarm a groom hours ahead of their vows, it was the gift Griffin asked for. “I could have given him a fondue pot, but I think this made a lot more sense for he and Tammy,” says Robert Stidham, founder and CEO of Summa Franchising Consulting.

Roughly two weeks earlier, Stidham told his attorney, and Griffin’s, to get a deal done before the 27th—Griffin’s wedding day. Investment firm Executive Decisions Group, which oversees Summa, had an agreement in place to acquire The Lost Cajun, its franchise system, lone corporate store, and spice arm, for an undisclosed amount.

“And they kind of chuckled,” Griffin says of the timeline.

In the end, however, it’s exactly how events proceeded. For Griffin, who created The Lost Cajun in 2010 and grew it to north of 20 stores, he says things raced by thanks to aligned goals and simply where’s he’s at in life these days. Griffin is hardly a hushed or low-key person—he used to wake up and yell, “I feel good!” before getting out of bed each morning. But COVID-19 was one maze he grew wary of turning corners in. “I’ve never tried to be anything other than I am,” Griffin says. “I’m a Cajun boy from South Louisiana that figured out how to cook gumbo and replicate it and other Cajun dishes, multi-state wide. But my educational background is not what Robert’s and his team’s is. So I was getting tired. That’s just the truth.”

Griffin, who is 67-years-old, felt he had brought The Lost Cajun as far as he could. “And the COVID [pandemic] just took the steam out of my sails,” he says.


A dream turns into a reality, and a new restaurant chain

The early days of growth get started for The Lost Cajun

Griffin’s well-worn story lives in the name itself. He was working a six-figure job in Lafitte, Louisiana, a town around 25 miles south of New Orleans, as a national training director for a conversion van business. Yet as Griffin likes to say, the only thing that held his attention was fishing. So he quit, opened a lodge, and operated the business with his late wife, Belinda, for 15 years. It was during that stretch he evolved into a Cajun chef.

In the mind-2000s, Griffin was put through the wringer. Hurricane Katrina, Rita, Ike, and Gustav battered the state, followed by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Griffin morphed his lodge into a facility for BP workers, running boats filled with meals to mop-up sites.

Eventually, the Griffins needed a vacation. They hopped into an RV and headed to Durango, Colorado—a trip sidetracked in Frisco when Belinda’s back gave out. It turned out to be a one-way journey.

Griffin opened a 15-seat, 850-square-foot restaurant in a town 9,000 feet above sea level that averages nearly 200 inches of snow a year. He was, Griffin notes, a “Lost Cajun.” Those early days proved a crash course in operations, where a $35,000 dream turned into a $100,000 bill. But the one constant was feedback. Lines snaked outside from the hour Griffin flipped the lights on. Consumer appreciation turned into organic franchise interest, and soon, Griffin was looking at ways to grow.

However, beyond the food itself, one of Griffin’s imprints on the business was his personality. The Lost Cajun is as pretentious as a backyard cookout. Stores are designed without partitions to separate booths. Kids often take chalk and draw on the floors.

Famously, servers greet guests with a paddle of samples before they get a menu. “People come in there hoping to be happy but expecting to be disappointed,” Griffin’s early line went. He just needed one shot to prove them wrong.

COVID and these traits, though, didn’t mix. Although the brand improved off-premises packaging, systems, and marketing, the reality was The Lost Cajun wasn’t the The Lost Cajun outside the four walls.

In April 2021, the brand filed for bankruptcy, listing roughly $338,000 in assets and $1.4 million in liabilities. The Lost Cajun Enterprises, LLC, the company’s 2012-formed franchise division, filed for a voluntary petition for relief under Chapter 11 of Title 11, Subchapter V, Small Business Debtor Reorganization.

When COVID hit, The Lost Cajun was forced into a number of cost-saving measures, including salary reductions for employees, reductions or the elimination of franchise fees for distressed operators facing temporarily closures or capacity restrictions, and the “cessation of payments under the Buy-Sell Agreement,” according to filings. The moves burned through cash and the pipeline dried up. Without new checks coming in, Griffin filed for relief.

The Lost Cajun emerged from bankruptcy on December 7, with Griffin providing personal capital to get through. And growth began to pick up again.

The Lost Cajun

“We’ve got a lot of folks to feed gumbo and jambalaya and crawfish etouffée to,” Robert Stidham says.

A new path emerges

Stidham first met Griffin in 2018 at a franchise network meeting in Denver. Naturally, he tuned in. Listening to Griffin and his “Boudreaux jokes” isn’t like watching slides flip on a corporate proposal. Over the past couple of years, the two talked occasionally and chatted casually about restaurant life in the COVID blender.

Summa, which has roughly 40 percent of its business in restaurants, had begun to explore acquisitions about three years ago, right before the crisis. This year, a mutual friend approached Stidham and asked if he might help Griffin out. He was looking for a buyer and insight. Stidham signed an NDA, got data on the business, and started to make calls.

“My thought was, ‘wow, this is really an interesting property.’ With all due respect to my friends in the hamburger business, I’m not convinced the world needs another hamburger concept,” Stidham says.

But he did think the market could host hundreds of Lost Cajuns. Stidham flew to Atlanta and spent a day and a half with Griffin, taking stock of his vision, story, and what worked and what didn’t over the years. The “please, thank you, you’re welcome culture” and “unbelievably great” food hooked him just as it did those first operators. “By Sunday afternoon, we stood up, shook hands, and said, you know, I think we have an agreement,” Stidham says.

He doesn’t foresee 30,000 Lost Cajuns across America. “But we can grow this business and this brand literally to hundreds of units,” Stidham says.

The four- to five-year target is 200 locations. Over time, Stidham says, “we’ll probably get somewhere between 300 and 500 units.”

“So we’re not going to be pedestrian,” he says. “We’re not going to be on every street corner, either. That’s now what this is.” There are currently 23 stores.

Stidham has travelled to about a third of the restaurants thus far and feels there’s plenty to build on. The franchise base is small, but they’re battle tested and committed. They’re mostly single-unit owner-operators who don’t have stakes in other chains.

Pulling back, Stidham says there are three big things he wants to focus on: Owner profitability; training and support services, plus efficiencies, and especially supply chain logistics; and helping franchisees with marketing—the ability to communicate who and what they are in their local trade areas. The latter point is a critical one, Stidham says, when you examine the footprint. The Lost Cajun isn’t opening in major metros like Chicago or Manhattan, and it likely never will.

It has stores from Burlington, North Carolina, to Cypress, Texas. “At the end of the day, staying true to the vision of who we are and what’s been built,” Stidham says. "That's what matters."

A key, though, he adds: “This is not a bad to good story. This is a good to great story. That’s what we want to have. I am not hung up on the number of franchisees; I’m hung up on the quality of franchisee and their ability to be successful and make a real positive impact in their communities.”

There’s a fourth element in play, too. Stidham calls it The Lost Cajun’s “value point.”

“I have not had anybody tell me we should be selling spaghetti, pizza, or chicken sandwiches or burgers,” he says. “We’re not going to do that. People visit us for very specific cuisine and for a very specific experience.”

Essentially, The Lost Cajun will keep aiming at a target no other brand has truly accomplished at scale in this industry—making Cajun staples accessible to the masses.

“We’ve got a community of people who are passionate and excited about the brand. That’s part of the fun of The Lost Cajun. People who know our cuisine, try our food, and like our food. People who maybe are coming in the first time and are not familiar with it,” Stidham says. “We have a chance to better help them understand what we do and how we do it.”

“We’ve got a lot of folks to feed gumbo and jambalaya and crawfish etouffée to,” he adds.

Griffin assured franchisees the deal would be a net positive, comparing it to “backing a Mack tool truck to your front door, and opening the back door and you’re able to reach in there and get any tool that you need.”

From marketing to supply chain to menu creation, Griffin believes Summa will equip operators with resources he could only reach for previously.

The Lost Cajun

The Lost Cajun will continue targeting mid- and small-tier markets for development.

“For a small group like us to be able to have the resources that this giant company has through their consulting, and all the other stuff that they do, it’s an amazing opportunity for everyone out there,” he says. “It’s a chance for you to grow individual stores, or to take the next step, and start growing multi-unit stores.”

Stidham expects The Lost Cajun’s franchise growth to continue as it has, from an organic, inquiry standpoint. But also, for larger operators to now come in (more than half of the deals done in the marketplace today, in general, are from franchise development groups). That’s going to be a transition, yet one Stidham says will strengthen both sides of the spectrum. “The funny thing that happens when you can bring those communities together is that the smaller operator really integrates that heart and soul for the brand to the bigger guy,” he says. “And the bigger guy helps us develop larger and more disciplined.”

Stidham can see The Lost Cajun in larger markets like Austin, Texas; Louisville, Kentucky; and Springfield, Missouri. Just not L.A., Washington, D.C., etc. There could be downtown venues as well as suburban, however, it’ll be the small towns across America where The Lost Cajun will drop its roots. “It’s a very different kind of brand. But frankly, from my standpoint, I really like the fact that we are people taking care of people,” Stidham says.

One detail that helped Griffin sign off was the fact he’s not vanishing. Stidham asked him to stay on as a consultant and face of the brand, and to attend grand openings when he can, “whether it’s here in the United States or in England,” Griffin says.

He’ll show up, talk about The Lost Cajun’s “culture of respect” and tell that story “over and over and over again,” Griffin says.

“It was the right time,” he adds. “Now, I get to do the fun stuff. I get to go to grand openings. I get to shake hands and kiss babies.”

And in the wake of COVID, the same setbacks The Lost Cajun navigated could turn into strengths. The nature of digital growth, born from lockdowns, has created a sterile side of the business that’s sticking well beyond the pandemic. While it’s a convenience-fueled arena with plenty of legs to grow, it has opened opportunity for experiential brands to dig in again. “I think people are ready to go back into the world and get great service and deal with friendly people and make a memory,” Stidham says. The antithesis, in other term', of “food as fuel.”

And that’s something The Lost Cajun can deliver on, he says. “Food is half the experience,” Stidham says. “But the rest of it how is the environment, the people, were you treated well, taken care of, were you listened to? You’re not paying a restaurant just for the food. And I don’t want to lose that. It’s who The Lost Cajun always will be.”