I had the pleasure of interviewing — Stacy Brown, founder of Chicken Salad Chick: The Chicken Salad Chick concept, born in Auburn, was established in 2008 in the kitchen of founder, Stacy Brown. When Stacy discovered that the local county health department would not allow her to continue making and selling her delicious recipes out of her home kitchen, she overcame that obstacle by launching her first restaurant with the business expertise of her future husband and fellow founder, Kevin Brown. Together, they opened a small takeout restaurant, which completely sold out of chicken salad just two hours after being open! Unfortunately, Stacy was struck with loss again when Kevin passed away from cancer. Despite the tragedy, she remained determined to continue growing the brand in his honor. Today, the brand has more than 95 restaurants in 10 states and is continuing its rapid expansion with both franchise and company locations. Chicken Salad Chick was recently named as one of FastCasual.com’s top Movers and Shakers and one of Nation’s Restaurant News 2017 Next 20 brands. The brand also ranked #37 on the 2016 Inc. list of the 500 fastest-growing companies in the U.S.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I am one of the founders of the restaurant concept, Chicken Salad Chick. We are a restaurant that specializes in chicken salad. We have 12 different flavors of what some have called, “the best chicken salad in the South.”
Although I now use the term “founder,” that word didn’t exist for me 10 years ago. At that time, I was known as “the woman stupid enough to open a restaurant that only serves chicken salad.”
Thankfully, after a lot of hard work with my late husband, Kevin Brown, many passionate team members, franchise owners and more than 95 restaurants later, “founder,” is a nicer term.
Why did you found your company?
My journey started when I had a little idea that unexpectedly turned into success. My decision to go into business may have been the perfect idea for a Lifetime special because it didn’t start out as a career, but out of a need to make ends meet for myself and my three young children following a divorce.
My goal was to still fulfill the stay-at- home-mom role, while also paying the bills. To achieve that goal, it had to be something that I knew something about, that I enjoyed doing, and something I could actually do. So, I came up with the idea to make chicken salad (one of my absolute favorite things) from my home kitchen and sell it door to door.
With luck on my side, delicious chicken salad in a basket and a focus on serving others, the door-to-door business took off. However, that plan failed when an anonymous caller turned me into the health department and I learned that what I was doing was “illegal.”
So, I had to come up with a new plan, which resulted in the idea to open a take-out only restaurant serving chicken salad with a friend and business advisor, Kevin Brown.
Neither of us had restaurant experience, but we grew it into a successful business pretty quickly…and we fell in love along the way. Kevin and I married less than a year after we became business partners and opened the first restaurant together. The odds were stacked against us, and yet, we beat the odds and have grown to become the fastest growing restaurant franchise according to Inc. 5000 in 2016.
It’s pretty unbelievable the journey we’ve taken to get here, and it all started with a very simple goal!
What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
My role with Chicken Salad Chick has changed many times over the past ten years. In the restaurant, Kevin and I both have been the janitor, cook, cashier, server, manager, and the owner.
When we franchised the concept, we moved out of the daily operations of the restaurant and held positions in our headquarters. My husband, Kevin, passed away from colon cancer in November 2015, but before he passed, we partnered with Russ Umphenour & Eagle Merchant Partners. During that time, we also welcomed our new CEO, Scott Deviney, to the fold.
Yet again, my role has changed to a more visionary, directional position. I can honestly say that every time I change roles, I think that I have found my new favorite — they keep getting better!
So the short answer to “what am I doing that’s disruptive?” Well, I’m spreading joy, enriching lives and serving others one bite of chicken salad at a time.
We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors?
I’ve been very fortunate in my personal life and career to be surrounded by some really remarkable peers, leaders, and role models, who have been mentors to me along the way — but there are two people that have played a crucial role in my journey, and they are Earlon and Betty McWhorter. Though Earlon and Betty were not my first business partners, they were the first great partners I had with the Chicken Salad Chick brand, and have been two of my most important mentors for so many reasons.
The McWhorter’s have such generous hearts — they operate and make decisions based on their core values, are kind to everyone they meet, and truly care about people. Earlon and Betty are concerned with being “human” before anything else — they have always put others first. This is evident in all of their philanthropic efforts and business ventures.
I attribute a lot of my success with Chicken Salad Chick to these two role models, they have believed in us from the beginning and have taught me to follow my dreams and lead with my heart.
How are you going to shake things up next?
My journey with Chicken Salad Chick has given me so many opportunities to reach people, to have a voice and inspire others. Most recently and for the future, I want to put a lot of my efforts toward participating in speaking engagements that help and empower entrepreneurial women.
Women empowerment is such a powerful force, and it’s so inspiring to see females coming together to achieve success in their careers and communities. Many people think you have to be extraordinary to achieve success, but I’m here to tell you that I’m as average as they come.
I’m not a genius, or a supermodel, or the best businesswoman on the planet, but what I am is strong, and I have always believed in my dreams and myself. The path to success is never straight, but finding my purpose in life has helped me continue to have faith in myself.
This is the secret recipe and if you follow it and never quit, you cannot fail. My next mission is to instil this in others and help women to connect and empower each other to reach for the stars.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey?
The best advice I’ve received for anyone looking to grow a business is to truly understand what success means to you. Soul search and make business decisions based on your core values — is a profit more important or happiness? Is it more important to hire based on skill or is it more important to hire based on heart?
Once you can determine what success looks like, you will have a better understanding on how to manage the daily flow of an emerging company.
With all that said, I’ve grown my career by surrounding myself with truly amazing people. I’ve learned that nobody acts alone — we’re all in this together. When your hearts, goals and passion match those around you, it all blends into a magical environment people want to be a part of.
I recently watched a show that had Maria Shriver on as a guest, and she talked about something that really resonated with me. She said “you don’t have to be superwoman, you can have everything in life you want, but you can’t have it all at once”. Those words gave me such peace and helped me understand that there really is time to do it all.
As women, we put so much pressure on ourselves to be the best we can be in all aspects, all of the time. You can still be the best mother, business owner, best friend, etc. and still have time to build an empire — but you must be patient and tackle one obstacle at a time. Keep moving forward and try to not become discouraged by how long it takes to create something. There are no overnight successes and you need to hang tough to be successful.
What’s a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Share a story with us.
I recently came across Reese Witherspoon’s new show, Shine On, and watched an episode where she had Dolly Parton as a guest. The interview was about women in business and specifically, the many difficulties women face climbing the ladder across all industries.
When Reese asked Dolly about her own struggles throughout her journey, Dolly’s response really made me think about how we view women in the workplace today. She explained that being a woman has nothing to do with anything. Life is hard, work is hard, and being a female is not a disadvantage. And I completely agree!
Women have amazing market and spending power — we are consumers and are in charge of a lot. We have gifts of generosity, intuition and empathy that offer invaluable results and sustainability to challenges we all face in the marketplace.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I’ll again have to say Reese Witherspoon on this one! She is leveraging her notoriety to impact and inspire other people, and has turned female empowerment into a media empire. None of her ventures are for herself — she is utilizing her platform to inspire others to be the best versions of themselves. Reese is an inspiring woman who I would love to learn more from even beyond the dinner table.
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Originally published at medium.com