Prior to 2020, rolling into an abandoned movie theater parking lot with a rented truck full of chicken salad might not have been a sound business idea. Even in this bizarre world of masks, wildfires, civil unrest, murder hornets and Zoom, delivery truck meat salad still seems a bit shady.
“It felt like we were selling drugs,” quipped Houston-based Chicken Salad Chick franchisee Ron Ram.
He and his business partner and wife, Kathleen Ram, are among dozens of franchisees in the system that have been doing what they call community drops. And while they still get some inquisitive looks from time to time from passersby and police, the new sales channel has helped them reach customers who weren’t driving to the office or their typical Chicken Salad Chick—or who weren’t typical customers at all.
“What I loved about this was the community aspect, it wasn’t just about keeping our sales up. That was a factor, but for a lot of owners, it was the excitement of going out and serving others and helping out in this time. I think that was the most rewarding part,” said Julie North, a soon-to-be two-unit franchisee, college friend of founder Stacy Brown and namesake for the brand’s Jazzy Julie chicken salad.
In North’s first community drop, she sold 450 pounds of chicken salad. At about $11 for a 1-pound container (dubbed a Quick Chick), not to mention add-ons such as croissants and cookies, sending a couple people to a parking lot made a lot of business sense.
While the idea’s origin remains a bit contested within the brand, Brown said it came to her as she and managers were brainstorming how to manage through the pandemic. They recalled doing a fundraiser in Tison, Georgia, about a half hour from the closest restaurant during which they sold 1,000 pounds of chicken salad.
“We were just sharing ideas and said, ‘I just went to Tison and delivered 450 pounds,’ and people were like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s brilliant,’” said Brown. “Soon everyone was reaching out and claiming their territory. We have the perfect product for something like this.”
The Rams, meanwhile, turned the model into a new leg of their business. They were still ramping up their first location and in the process of opening a second while also managing their Pizza Patron restaurants. Early on, the community drops were just a way to pick up a few sales here and there.
“We thought we could just deliver the Quick Chick, go to small neighborhoods and people we knew,” said Kathleen Ram, who added that changed fast and “now we’re renting a refrigerated truck three days a week.”
The Rams deliver to their local communities and are helping a nearby franchisee drum up excitement as their store get closer to opening. They quickly learned to professionalize the process as sales spiraled (in a good way).
“We do at least three or four drops in a day,” said Ram. “We asked customers to fill out a Google doc to do the order, then we call them to make sure their order is correct … we had one woman who was doing that all by herself. That was a big part, to get a little bit of the hospitality via the phone.”
In the early morning hours employees get to work on a chicken salad assembly line, then load the refrigerated truck. In a time of mass layoffs in the restaurant industry, Ron Ram said the model helped them keep people on staff.
“We didn’t know that it would fill a couple full-time positions, so we were keeping people employed,” said Ram. “We actually increased our sales by $25,000 a week. We’re in the top five” of high-performing stores and the corporate office was “shocked since we just opened six months ago.”
The drops bring 50 to 150 people to a parking lot during their hour-long pickup slot, with customers even decorating their own name signs to help Chicken Salad Chick employees identify who gets what order. It’s almost like a parade, but one with an average ticket of $35 per car.
The next purchase for the Rams: their own refrigerated truck.