Boparan Restaurant Group (BRG) is looking to increase the presence of American fast-casual concept Slim Chickens across the UK. Richard Pigott, head of operations at the brand, explains the fundamental principles behind its growth strategy and how it is adapting its kitchens to meet its ‘six-minute service’ targets.
The chicken-focused market in the UK is fairly polarised — many people would pick out the likes of Nando’s and KFC as the most obvious names in terms of scale and offer. Where is Slim Chickens trying to position itself on the spectrum?
Slim Chickens is a fast-casual offer which sits clearly in the ‘better chicken’ segment. We offer premium fried chicken, always fresh, never frozen, hand-breaded, cooked to order and served within six minutes to enjoy in the restaurant, or to take away or have delivered.
You have some ambitious expansion plans involving growing the franchise side of the business. What makes you feel Slim Chickens is such a scalable concept?
There are several factors which give us confidence about the potential for expansion. Chicken is a hugely popular category in the UK, but while large-scale branded restaurant propositions are present in both the QSR and casual dining space, the fast casual segment is under-provided.
In the US, the branded fast-casual better chicken segment is well-established and growing fast. In fact, chicken restaurants has been the largest fast food category there for a number of years. We expect the better chicken segment to become more popular in the UK, and Slim Chickens is well-placed to lead that growth.
How would you describe Slim Chickens’ proposition?
In Slim Chickens’ fresh chicken, hand-breaded, cooked to order and served with your choice of our house dipping sauces, we have a fantastic product which is receiving a great response from customers wherever we have opened so far. Slim’s is a strong, recognisable brand with a well-established operating model and franchise support resource.
Now that the brand is established in the UK, receiving a great response from customers and performing strongly, it is the right time to accelerate roll-out and bring the Slim Chickens experience to more new customers across the country. Slim’s represents a great franchise opportunity and expansion with franchise partners is an important part of our growth strategy for the brand.
How easy is it to get hold of the locations that you want? Are you inherently focused on traditional high street and shopping destinations?
The UK restaurant market is vibrant and highly competitive, so the best locations will always be hotly contested. Our goal is to open at pace in the right locations and we’re working hard to ensure that Slim Chickens is the most compelling fast-casual better chicken offer in the market, and thereby also attractive to landlords.
Initially, we have focused on traditional high street and shopping mall locations, and we see plenty more expansion opportunity in those channels, but Slim’s has format solutions for non-traditional channels, too. When the right site opportunities come up, we’d like to move into other channels, such as drive-thru and travel.
The brand originates in the US — what have you had to change about the operation in order to adapt it to the UK market?
Very little. One of the great things about the brand is its universal appeal. Most of the menu is identical to Slim’s USA — the same recipe, the same delicious chicken freshly cooked to order. We’ve adapted the restaurant design a little to suit the speed of service and high peak volume trading patterns we have in the UK — for example in terms of seating configuration and the addition of self-order kiosks — but in most respects the restaurants are identical.
Every kitchen has the same workflow but due to the variable site shapes and sizes we often need to work on fitting it into the kitchen space”
What are your main priorities for the brand in 2020? Can you give us any insight to store targets you have or the number of franchisees you’d like to sign?
Our priority is simply to bring the Slim Chickens experience to as many more people as we can, one restaurant at a time. Our new restaurant pipeline for 2020 is filling nicely and we’re evaluating a number of potential locations. We’ll open up to 10 new restaurants this year, a combination of company-owned and franchised.
How would you describe Slim Chickens’ kitchen model? Is the kitchen in every store the same?
We work with a simple flow arrangement — raw in at one end and cooked out the other. Raw to fryer and then plate up. Every kitchen has the same workflow but due to the variable site shapes and sizes we often need to work on fitting it into the kitchen space.
What are the ‘workhorses’ of the kitchen in terms of equipment? And what are key components of a Slim Chickens kitchen?
The workhorses in the kitchens are the Pitco fryers. We’re really impressed with these bits of kit. They have never let us down.
Does the design and specification of the kitchen mirror the US operations? Or is there an element of reconfiguration for the UK?
We have kept to the same basic design as in the US, but with some additional pieces of equipment, for example milkshake machines. The key difference is fitting it all into smaller and different shaped kitchen spaces that we tend to have here in the UK.
The workhorses in the kitchens are the Pitco fryers. We’re really impressed with these bits of kit. They have never let us down”
When setting up new stores, what are the main challenges in terms of getting a branch operationally ready? And to what extent is the design and flow of the kitchen influenced by speed of service?
We have our opening process pretty tightly organised now and we’re able to get a restaurant opened in six days after handover from our fit-out team. Speed of service is key for us. We want to have orders served within six minutes, so we focus on minimising hold-ups at all pinch points in the business. Over our first seven openings we have learned a lot about how to maximise efficiency.
Examples include guests self-serving bottomless drinks, clear delineation of waiting space for takeaway and delivery orders, organising the kitchen into specific work stations, and the optimum number of fryers. Of course, the other major focus is on our people. We’ve been lucky to be able to recruit some very talented and energetic teams and we have a full training and support team in place to train them up on how to run the perfect Slim Chickens restaurant.
How closely do you look at new kitchen innovations? Is there anything on the market — equipment or concepts — that you think could improve the efficiency of Slim Chickens kitchens in future?
We are always open to looking at new ways of doing things to make life easier and more efficient in the kitchen, but we have a great model that works so you have to be careful how much you tinker with it.