These smaller designs take into account that Walk-On’s now does 15-16 percent off-premises, with some stores surpassing 20 percent. Taylor says those numbers should elevate in the new year after the chain rolls out a massive technology suite update, including a new online ordering platform, loyalty program, website design, and POS system. And within these prototypes, Walk-On’s will be more mindful of to-go and delivery, like a separate entrance so the off-premises guest doesn’t disturb the dine-in consumer checking in with the host.
Franchisees are still building Generation One stores, and Walk-On’s agrees with those decisions because sometimes a bigger box is necessary in certain markets, Taylor says. Looking at the overall picture, the concept wants to give franchisees a suite of options for wherever they may want to grow. Sometimes, that may mean entering a smaller market that can hold a Walk-On’s, but not necessarily at $5 million AUV. The chain recently opened in Clemson, South Carolina, after converting from a 5,500-square-foot historic theater. The location can seat up to 130 and features a patio. Taylor says a 5,000-square-foot Walk-On’s is possible too after refining the menu and streamlining prep areas in the back of house. It would be a better fit for a market with fewer than 70,000 people.
“There are options because we will always have Gen Ones out there, we're going to have some Bulldogs,” Taylor says. “It's just giving the franchisees and us different ways to look at different markets and develop, but also cast a much wider net so we can go into some of these much smaller markets that we think are great markets for us, but probably don't justify the investment of a big freestanding building.”
Walk-On’s has 70-plus restaurants across 14 states. That’s after opening more than 40 locations between 2020 and 2022. Taylor attributes growth success to servicing franchisees as soon as the pandemic began. Operators then saw how quickly stores were able to claw back sales, and confidence soared. The chain also used COVID to take advantage of real estate opportunities; stores were converted from TGI Fridays, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Tilted Kilt, Twin Peaks, Houlihan’s, and more. Even with the new Wildcat prototype, Taylor says Walk-On’s will continue to seek second-generation spots—anything that allows for franchisees to experience better unit-level economics.
The company will finish 2022 with 16 store openings, and that’s after a tough year from supply chain and sourcing equipment. But Walk-On’s learned from those trials and is now ordering far in advance.
In 2023, the plan is to debut 20 restaurants. Beyond that, the goal is to set a pace of 20-25 new locations per year. At the same time, Taylor and his fellow leaders constantly preach for everyone not to get caught up in the headlines and triumphs. Taking on the hard-working spirit of a walk-on athlete is what got the restaurant here, and no one wants to lose that fire. He wants team members to be proud of their wins, but also recognize that innovation never ends.
“We just need to focus on being better,” Taylor says. “Either get better, get worse. Nobody stays the same. We just want to get better every day. And so that's set for us. But innovation—that's what's happening here.”