The many taps at Walk-On's are an inducement for customers to return.
Opening a full-service restaurant is no easy task—or small investment—especially a large-format sports bar with countless flat-screens, a huge staff and a sprawling menu that’s far more upscale than a typical game-day watering hole. Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based Walk-On’s is a sports bar bucking negative foot-traffic trends in casual dining and exemplifying the expression “big risk, big reward.” The company’s average all-in investment starts at $1.2 million, but its locations boast average unit volumes north of $5 million.
Joining up with a big restaurant system—let alone one backed by the star power of New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees who owns a minority stake—isn’t for the faint of heart or pocketbook, and tends to attract well capitalized franchisees like fellow Louisiana restaurateurs Chris McJunkins and Shane Morrison, who both became Walk-On’s franchisees and then re-upped their commitments to open several new locations in the coming years.
McJunkins, who has owned restaurants prior to his Walk-On’s experience, wasn’t searching for a new concept to add to his portfolio, but an exceedingly positive dining experience with his son at the brand’s Baton Rouge location got his entrepreneurial gears turning.
“When I walked in, the atmosphere was cool, it had a lot of TVs, but when the food came out and I saw the plate presentations, that’s when I was like, holy cow, this is not what I expected,” he said, noting he was particularly enamored with the Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding on the dessert menu.
Days later, he called Walk-On’s President Scott Taylor, who told him to tap the brakes as the brand wasn’t quite ready to franchise. McJunkins bided his time, searched for an ideal location in the desirable Shreveport market and, six months later, was granted a franchise. More than two years on, he has two locations open, an additional restaurant under construction and several more in the pipeline.
After the spark of enthusiasm was officially lit, McJunkins researched the brand by examining its financials, and also engaged in some undercover detective work. He visited several Walk-On’s locations, examining staff and customer interactions, and learning more about its bar and food programs.
“My gut feeling was that this was a winner,” he said of his investigation. “I’m not always right, so I was hoping that I was—my concern was, quite simply, that everybody would love it the way I loved it, otherwise I was going to be in trouble.”
From his many years in the restaurant industry, McJunkins worried the brand would receive so many inquiries that it would lower franchisee standards and expand too quickly.
Since the doors opened at his first unit in late 2015, he has been pleased to see a slow, steady approach to growth from the franchisor.
He advises anyone considering a restaurant franchise, whatever the brand, to do on-the-ground research before signing on the dotted line, undertake proper financial research and either be a strong operator yourself or be prepared to hire one to ensure a strong opening and avoiding learning-on-the-fly experiences.
“Sit there on a Friday night or Monday morning and see how it goes,” he said. “Watch the staff and see if they’re happy, watch the customers, too—it would be tough to find a Walk-On’s that’s not busy most of the time.”
The brand’s largest franchisee, Shane Morrison, is also deeply embedded in the restaurant world as a fellow franchisor and operator of restaurants and movie theaters with more than $100 million in combined annual sales. Also hailing from Baton Rouge, Morrison met Walk-On’s founder, Brandon Landry, through mutual acquaintances. They became close friends as the brand began its initial growth push.
The more he learned about Landry and his brand, including its team-centric culture and marketing savvy, he floated the idea of converting some of his well located, underperforming restaurants to Walk-On’s—and the franchisor agreed. Morrison now has three Walk-On’s locations open, with plans to open dozens across five states if everything stays on plan.
“Our partnership with him allowed us to breathe a new bit of life into our own restaurant company, and a new level of energy which we’re happy and thankful for,” he said. “We saw things in his company that we did not see in ourselves, and we felt like we had things early on that we could offer that might help better his company from an infrastructure standpoint.”
While researching the brand, Morrison also focused on its financials, using his own company’s numbers to come up with an even more detailed earnings estimate to ensure the investment would be worth the considerable time, money and effort.
Like McJunkins, he was reassured by the brand’s high financial investment, suggesting there wouldn’t be less savvy franchisees entering the system as it expanded.
“I liked the fact that those barriers to entry are so high, because that puts Walk-On’s dealing with a smaller group of very capable people,” he said. “From my perspective, that would translate into a highly probable success for a long period of time.”
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