Miles Coggins despises mayonnaise—yet even he was mesmerized by the robust and scrumptious flavor profiles of Jalapeño Holly and Sassy Scotty, two of the many playfully named chicken salads offered by Chicken Salad Chick, a booming restaurant franchise headquartered in Auburn, Alabama, where Coggins serves as the director of design and construction.
“I’m a poster child for trying it and loving it,” Coggins affirms. “You can appreciate that it’s all made in-house, all made fresh.”
Indeed, the greater southeast region of the United States appears to agree with him. The inaugural restaurant opened in 2008. In early 2014, there were 14 locations. Today, there are 128—with between 40 and 50 new restaurants expected to open in the coming years. Coggins and his team strive to support franchise owners, vendors, and corporate team members to maintain an organic and aggressive growth plan.
When Coggins was hired by Chicken Salad Chick in 2014, it was somewhat of a homecoming. Before accumulating more than a decade of experience across the country working in real estate and construction, Coggins attended Auburn University to study building science. Though he had worked extensively in the healthcare and multifamily industries, the restaurant domain was brand new to Coggins—he couldn’t have envisioned that Chicken Salad Chick would evolve into the successful franchise that is well on its way of achieving its goal of becoming “America’s Favorite Place for Chicken Salad.”
“I sensed the excitement from members of our leadership team that have long careers in the restaurant business, but it was the first time for me in this kind of industry,” Coggins recalls. He thought to himself at the time, How many could they really do?
“It was a tough start because we had to figure out what exactly we had going,” Coggins continues. “We had to take a few steps back to figure out who we were as a brand. Until we established that foundation, it was a lot of throwing darts.”
But once all the departments came together to start “pulling in one direction,” Chicken Salad Chick began hitting bullseyes. “It’s our mission to spread joy, enrich lives, and serve others,” Coggins says. “We know we make good food, but you also have to treat customers right.”
The mission, however, extends far beyond how it serves its customers. The senior leadership team is laser focused on how it can gratify the communities in which it operates—and its practice of hiring, retaining, and promoting internal talent embodies such a purpose. Coggins says the team wants to support its franchise owners to dig in and be a positive impact inside and outside the restaurant. “Our dream is to bring in a team member that works in the ‘back of house’ and maybe one day you hand them a key to a franchise,” he says. “It’s that kind of thing that, overall, makes an impact on people personally—not just on selling chicken salad.”
When a customer enters a Chicken Salad Chick, the company’s vision is simple: establish an experience that feels like home. While some restaurants emphasize chic designs and modern layouts, Chicken Salad Chick values simplicity and functionality. Not only does this achieve its purpose of creating a welcoming atmosphere inside of the restaurant, but it also allows Coggins’s team to open new restaurants at a rapid pace. According to him, it also helps that “there’s no grilling or frying,” meaning that there are very few auxiliary systems that need to be added to a new restaurant.
“Most of the fixtures and appliances are ‘plug and play,’” Coggins explains. “Once we got past that learning curve of understanding the operations side of our brand, there was more consistency and standardization between legacy stores and new stores.”
Still, the countless moving parts associated with opening a new location on a tight timeline—keeping contractors, developers, landlords, and owners all on the same plan—is the most challenging aspect of Coggins’s job. “We can’t take anything for granted,” he says. “We can’t assume that just because something worked in one place that it will work in another. There are always new challenges working with new jurisdictions and municipalities, new local contractors and suppliers, and new logistics for vendors. The construction industry as a whole is still booming, so reliable resources and availability of strong trade labor is critical.”
As exciting as outward expansion is, Coggins says that “growing concentrically” is the company’s primary focus. “Instead of only going blindly into new markets, we want to hit the current ones with more density and grow brand recognition, then spread the footprint naturally,” he explains.
About 70 percent of Chicken Salad Chick’s restaurants are franchise-owned, but Coggins hopes to see that number be even higher. “We still don’t have the brand recognition of some of our competitors, but more people see our name every day,” he jokes. “It helps the brand to not just pour into corporate stores, but instead to focus on helping franchise owners themselves be more successful and expand.”
Coggins has three direct reports: a project manager, a development coordinator, and an administrative assistant. “I don’t believe in micromanagement because I trust them to do the job and can confidently put them in front of our franchise owner and vendors,” Coggins says. “We all get along well, our personalities mesh well, and they are all hungry, humble, and smart. We want to support our franchise owners like our clients and through that, continue to grow the success of Chicken Salad Chick.”
If you visit Chicken Salad Chick’s website, you’ll be greeted with a large banner that reads: “Made fresh daily and served from the heart.” It’s quite clear that this goodness emanates from much more than just the kitchen’s signature ingredients.