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Southern food brand This Is It relies on ‘sinful’ menu


Tamala Fowler, new CEO of This Is It Southern Kitchen & BBQ, was stumped at first to name the chain’s main competition. “We struggled with the answer. Now I say—your grandma,” she said, noting a robust catering business and a focus on homestyle Southern cooking.

“This is the food that everybody grew up with everywhere,” she said.

This Is It is a 35-year-old family business in Atlanta founded by Butch and Barbara Anthony. The family hired Corlex Capital, a year-old investment and consulting firm, to roll out a franchising program.

Corlex partner Jeffrey Kolton ticked off the reasons he’s a fan. “The food is spectacular. There’s a love for the brand” in the Atlanta area. The menu, which received an update from celebrity chef Pat Neely before the franchise rollout, is attractive. “There’s really nothing like it,” he said. “Mr. Anthony himself is iconic. You’ve just got to really love the guy.”

J.B. Bedasse, another Corlex partner, touted the “very strong economics” at the 11 restaurants open through Atlanta. “It pencils very well. What they have works,” he said. “The question is can they replicate it on a much greater scale.”

The patriarch, now in his 90s, remains as a consultant and figurehead of the brand. Fowler said the family angle is familiar to her because of her background at Dickey’s BBQ.

Bedasse added about Fowler: “One of the biggest things that had us chasing her down was Dickey’s. They were here,” he said, putting his hand down low first and then up high, “and then they were here.”

“Founders always have a unique perspective,” Fowler said, “and not just the founders. There are four family members that will have executive roles” and they all get along. “I’ve told Mr. Anthony,” he should speak on the subject, because “they all support each other. They like each other.”

Tamala Fowler

“This is the food that everyone grew up with everywhere,” said CEO Tamala Fowler about This Is It Southern Kitchen & BBQ. Pat Neely, above, celebrity chef and barbecue expert, is helping to build recipes and acts as brand ambassador.

As for her past role, “Dickey’s was a 60-year-old small company and then it was a 70-year-old big company. They had 575 units when I left, triple of any other barbecue chain.”

She’s heard the trope that barbecue doesn’t transfer well. “The Dickey’s family believes people everywhere love good food,” she counters.

Fowler was also chief executive during troubled times at Gigi’s Cupcakes, after Keycorp, its acquirer in 2016, and a group of franchisees sued and counter-sued each other in an ugly battle. “I wasn’t involved with that lawsuit,” Fowler said, and noted the brand was sold to Elite Restaurant Group.

Paul Millsap, who plays in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets but knows This Is It from his time with the Atlanta Hawks, is the first franchisee, signing as an area developer for the Atlanta area. He does not have restaurant experience but is looking at the business as his career after pro basketball.

Neely, celebrity chef and a barbecue expert, has come on board “in an undefined way,” building recipes and acting as brand ambassador.

Corlex partners Kolton and Bedasse said their first deal, a planned franchise of celebrity chef Ivan Orkin and his ramen shops, has not yet rolled out despite more than a year of work. “It’s a process,” Bedasse said.

The deal with This Is It started as a consulting arrangement and grew into an investment by Corlex and funders they brought in. Corlex now has three business lines: a principal investment fund to partner with founders or chefs to develop franchise concepts; a consulting practice that uses experienced operating partners who can help under-performing operators improve; and a debt advisory practice.

But it doesn’t take long for them to reveal that food is their true love for This Is It: the barbecue rib tips, fried chicken, cornbread dressing and Mother Lil’s sweet potato pie.

“And the desserts,” Kolton chimed in, looking hungry. “Sinful, sinful,” said Bedasse.

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