McAlister’s Deli was founded in the late 1980s in Oxford, Mississippi, in a renovated gas station complete with checkered floors and a roll-up garage door. Needless to say, things have changed for this rapidly growing fast-casual restaurant chain since then.
McAlister’s locations now sport a modern look, featuring natural colors and a focus on freshness. Jerry Johnson, senior director of development, says one of the company’s goals as it remodels existing locations and builds new restaurants is to give the brand a more contemporary look with a focus on operational efficiency.
“In our current prototypical design, the brass rails and curtains, checkered floors, and outdated color palette have been replaced with natural colors and materials, and a focus on freshness,” he says.
After graduating from Georgia Tech with a degree in civil engineering, Johnson worked for a civil engineering consulting firm, then a chain of convenience stores. Deciding that restaurant development would offer greater challenges, he joined Rare Hospitality (then the parent company of Bugaboo Steakhouse, Longhorn Steakhouse, and The Capital Grill), becoming the company’s first ever engineering manager. Seeking experience in a new area, he then moved to FOCUS Brands International, overseeing international development throughout Asia and Latin America for Auntie Anne’s and Cinnabon, primarily as director of development for the international group.
In mid-2015, Johnson got the opportunity to work on the McAlister’s brand. He jumped at the chance. He says he’s responsible for “solving problems and keeping things on schedule. I’m like the conductor of the band. I don’t play an instrument, but I keep everyone in tune and moving in the same direction.”
His job requires him to manage a number of outside vendors, such as architects, engineers, equipment vendors, furniture suppliers, and sign companies to name a few.
“I juggle all the pieces to ensure we stick to prototypical brand standards and meet company development goals on new store openings and remodels,” he says.
Although the restaurant design has gone through several evolutions through the years, Johnson says the team has been working hard to get the brand aligned with the new look to achieve overall consistency.
“The colors, materials, furniture, signage, and kitchen equipment should be consistent from location to location, but there is some design flexibility,” he says. “We add some local flavor in the form of a mural that accentuates local culture inside the store.”
When selecting new locations, Johnson says prospective sites must have “the right location, with the right head counts, right parking, right traffic, and right visibility, among other key factors.”
Following its impressive growth in recent years, McAlister’s plans to continue expanding its reach in the coming months and years. Given McAlister’s Mississippi roots, it’s not surprising that the highest density of stores is in the Southeast.
“We have a large presence in Texas and are expanding west and north,” Johnson says. “We now have locations in Illinois, Idaho, and New Mexico, for example. We’re constantly looking for new markets and new franchisees that share our vision for expansion in the future.” He adds that FOCUS Brands has a significant international presence, so infrastructure is in place should McAlister’s ever decide to push beyond US borders.
Johnson attributes the company’s growth to a solid corporate development and operational paradigm that provides a great dining experience at a great value. He says that 10 years ago, traditional casual restaurants were popular, but that’s now giving way to the fast-casual concept.
“McAlister’s was one of the first to embrace the concept,” he says. “[The company] understands that people want to be more in control of their time and dining experience, as opposed to the traditional casual dining format. McAlister’s design facilitates a more guest-controlled experience, and the public has responded to that. Now a lot of other traditional casual dining places are becoming more fast-casual themselves.”
As McAlister’s expands, it has become increasingly important to establish processes. “A few years ago, a lot of things were done with a handshake,” Johnson says. “Now we need processes in place that will set the stage for successful, controlled growth of the brand. One thing we’ve done is create an Intranet, which allows franchisees to go online for updates on menu items, operational topics, etc. Also, our IT team is developing a cloud location for prototypical drawings that engineers and architects might need to design sites to current brand standards.”
It’s all part of the challenge and framework of growing a brand, and it’s a challenge that Johnson says he relishes.
“I really enjoy seeing a blank piece of property turn into a first-class restaurant for the people in the area,” he says. “It can be chaotic at times, but solving the issues that keep us on track is the most satisfying part of the job. Look to the future, there’s no limit to the places we can go.”