The entrepreneurial journey is not usually easy. If you have had an idea and tried to turn it into a profitable business, you’ll agree with me that how you thought things would turn out wasn’t exactly how they went, especially at the beginning.
Lately, I have been doing some introspection on my business and where I am now versus where I thought I would be at this time when I started. To be honest, although I have made a few strides, I am still a long way from my initial targets.
The discovery of this wide gap brought with it some heavy negative feelings; of anxiety, fear and at some point, despair. It’s funny though, how when you are about to give up, the universe throws you a lifeline and if you hang onto it long enough, you somehow find your way back. Mine came in the form of a podcast.
There I was, browsing the internet and a chance search for a recipe brought me to an episode of Guy Raz’s podcast, ‘How I Built This’, specifically to his interview of Chicken Salad Chick founder, Stacy Brown.
Listening to her rollercoaster journey in entrepreneurship reminded me that I still have it in me to succeed even when the odds are stacked against me. Hopefully, her story will inspire you as well.
To understand the growth of Chicken Salad Chick from a simple idea to a $75 million business and how it got me out of my funk, it’s important that we start at its inception.
How the story goes
In 2007, after an emotionally draining divorce, Stacy had to figure a way to make ends meet. She had 3 young children, all below the age of 6 and needed to make enough money to cover her bills. She wondered to herself, “What do I have to offer to the world that could help put food on the table?”
She knew she loved chicken salad, mostly eating it more than preparing the same. But she had also noticed that it was always on the local hotel menus so that meant it was quite a popular dish around her hometown in Auburn, Alabama. She figured if it was that popular, she might be able to make about $500 (her bills at that time) a month selling it door-to-door. And so the journey began.
She made the chicken salad in her kitchen and knocked on her neighbour’s doors with a bright smile and optimism and it paid off. It wasn’t just her smile that won them over but the product as well. Her customers were thrilled by her chicken salad and she got off to a flying start.
She kept at it for several months until one day, someone called the health department on her. The health department immediately shut her down ~ It turns out making food in an unlicensed kitchen and selling it out of the back of your car in off-the-shelf storage containers is, technically speaking, not legal.
Stacy and her kids needed to survive so she sought another way. She enlisted the help of an old family friend, Kevin Brown, who was quite business savvy and an even bigger optimist. He convinced her not to give up and advised her to open a restaurant instead. Together, they scouted for a location and found an 800 square foot shack that needed about $800 a month rent (which was way off what she could raise on her own). Kevin helped her put the money together and surprisingly, on their first day, they sold out by 2 pm.
Sooner than later, Kevin and Stacey were drawn to each other by the intensity of their business and partnership. Eventually, they fell in love and got married. Driven by newfound passion in their love, they steadily grew their business allowing them to open two other locations in the same town from their cash flow. Around this time, no bank is willing to listen to them, let alone lend them money for expansion.
In around 4- 5 years, they had managed to build a sustainable business through sheer hard work and consistently persevering through the tough times. They realized though, that for them to make a real profit in their business, they needed to pivot to a franchising model. The challenge: Where would they find a good investor to take them to this next level?
They did find an investor couple who offered about $430,000 in support of their franchising model. In an ecstatic bubble, Kevin and Stacey gave up 51% shareholding, which in retrospect, in Stacy’s own words, “was a foolish thing to do.” Unfortunately, the investor couple turned out to be less-than-honourable and threatened to fire Stacey and Kevin from their own company just a few months later when the two couples had divergent visions about the future of the business.
Stacy and Kevin wouldn’t take the fight lying down. How could they allow all their hard work to go to waste? They tried to negotiate a buyout of their investors. However, the investors insisted they would only accept a 3x return on their investment ~ which totaled to about $1.3 million (!) ~ and they wanted it within 30 days (!!). Alternatively, they would take over the company and Stacy and Kevin would get nothing.
Obviously, Stacy and Kevin didn’t have $1.3 million, so they embarked on a statewide pitching tour, talking to anyone who was willing to listen. The first day came and went, nothing, second and third, still nothing. A week passed and still, they had nothing to show for it. The pattern was repeated for the next 2 weeks and deep anxiety began to set in. The deadline was still looming, just 7 days away and still, they had nothing. Nothing but hope that someone will see their vision even without a single franchise store in their portfolio.
As the anxiety grew, desperation slowly set in and just when they were about to give up, on the very last day ~ day 30, they got a call. It was a man named Earlon McWhorter, who had made a fortune building Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores. He called after attending their pitch meeting at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce and told them he believed in them and their dream. He also added that he loves their chicken salad and he was willing to write them a check for any amount they needed to make their franchising dream a reality.
Earlon’s investment not only gave Stacey and Kevin their company back but also propelled them into a franchising model that took off immediately. They started opening stores all over and everything was going splendidly well.
Then, in the middle of this massive expansion, Kevin got diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer that had metastasized to his liver. It was a massive blow but they had to soldier on. He began an aggressive chemotherapy treatment regimen immediately and surprisingly didn’t miss a single day of work even when he felt at his weakest.
Not only did they continue to grow Chicken Salad Chick, but from the new awakening brought about by Kevin’s plight, they also started Chicken Salad Chick Foundation to support colon cancer research. As part of their fundraising efforts, Kevin had a crazy idea to put on a huge benefit concert at Auburn University’s Jordan- Hare Stadium and to have Kenny Chesney ~ the biggest country music star at the time ~ headline the event.
Though they felt they were punching above their weight, they reminded themselves that they had pulled off a franchise from the simple idea of a restaurant dedicated exclusively to chicken salad. This was all the hope they needed.
They got Kenney Chesney, sold out the 50,000 tickets they had and on that one night in April of 2016, 9 years from when Stacy sold her first chicken salad, they filled the Jordan- Hare Stadium. However, Kevin was not among the crowd, not in his physical form at least. He had passed away, just 6 months before on November 21st 2015, surrounded by family.
It was an unfathomably painful loss for Stacy. One that came after almost a full decade of incredibly low lows and very high highs in both her professional and personal life. Yet, just like her husband Kevin, Stacy soldiered on. She persevered. She kept fighting, not just for her and her children, but for the memory of what Kevin meant to her and their business.
Later that year, all their efforts were handsomely rewarded. Chicken Salad Chick was listed in the Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing restaurant brands in America. Today, it is valued at over $100 million and Stacy continues to guide the team to new heights.
The Hero’s Journey
Listening to Stacy and Kevin’s tumultuous story was inspiring to me as I hope it was to you. Their struggles and battles are something we can all relate with and their ultimate success is one we all aspire to. Their story is, in many ways, a quintessential entrepreneurial journey.
It is also a classic hero’s journey; the same concept that most Greek Mythologies, Bible stories and even award winning TV and Box office movies and series follow. It’s a tale that starts with the call to adventure, departure from the hero’s comfort zone, meeting with adversity and defeat and then rising up to claim the precious prize before returning home to the applause of everyone who doubted in the first place.
Joseph CampBell, in his famous book, ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’, written about 7 decades ago, retells dozens of stories explaining how each of them represents this ‘monomyth’ or ‘Hero’s journey’.
In his description of this, he says, “The hero’s journey is a cycle that begins and ends in the hero’s ordinary world. Along the quest, the hero passes through an unfamiliar special world where there are some key events, trials and lessons to learn.
In the end, the hero returns from this mysterious adventure, a changed man, with the power to bestow gifts on his fellow man.”
Stacy of Chicken Salad Chick follows a similar path in her own way and in the end comes out with a good payday and a foundation that continues to help others in a similar plight as Kevin’s.
Here is a simplified version of the Hero’s Journey described by Christopher Vogler in his screenwriting guide, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for writers.
After looking at the cycle, allow yourself to go back and analyze the story of Chicken Salad Chick. Can you pick out the corresponding events in Stacy’s journey? More importantly, as an entrepreneur, can you identify which stage you are currently on in your own journey?
We are all facing challenges and triumphs, some more than others. The important thing to realize is that if you are going through a dip, the crest will soon come and you will rise again. On the other hand, if things are going well, it’s important to prepare and brace yourself for the challenges that most assuredly will come.
This is the journey all entrepreneurs must bear. If and only if you are resilient, then will you win the final prize.