Newk’s: chapter 2 in success story

by Wally Northway

Published: June 19,2006

Newco Dining, LLC, is at it again. After taking its first restaurant concept from a single North Mississippi eatery to a multi-state chain, the partners of the company have come flying out of the gate with their newest venture, Newk’s Express Café.

In November 2005, there was one Newk’s. Seven months later, there were restaurants scattered across Mississippi with more envisioned for the Magnolia State, as well as in Tennessee and Alabama.

When asked what his future vision for Newk’s is, partner Chris Newcomb wasted little time and few words in his response. “To keep opening restaurants,” he said.

Newco already has one successful restaurant chain story on its résumé. In 1987, an Oxford dentist, Dr. Don Newcomb, bought an abandoned service station and converted it into a deli. His son, Chris, and his office manager Debra Bryson, none of whom had prior experience in the restaurant industry, joined him in the venture.

McAlister’s Gourmet Deli and its “quick casual” concept, which lands between fast food and formal dining, proved a winner. As of January of this year, McAlister’s was a chain of 185 restaurants, and was coming off a record-breaking year in 2005 when 34 new delis were opened.

However, by that time the Newcombs and Bryson had struck on a new concept — something of an upscale McAlister’s with a unique menu and décor. The partners have since sold their interest in McAlister’s.

Chris said he and his partners spent two years developing the new concept, making trips to Chicago and New York for ideas and the latest trends.

Experiencing Newk’s

“People want choice, flavor, freshness and a sensory experience,” Chris said.

Newk’s offers gourmet pizzas, sandwiches, soups, salads, a children’s menu and more. The attention to detail and quality of product is high, and the eatery focuses on each item’s “flavor profile.” For example, sandwiches are prepared using high-quality roast beef and other imported meats and cheese. Its chicken salad is homemade with grapes and pecans. Newk’s marinates its steaks and chicken daily.

The salad dressings are made from scratch using fresh ingredients. Salads are hand tossed with each restaurant goes through approximately 2,000 pounds of the Romaine lettuce per week.

Savoring the experience

Newk’s puts much stock in its décor. To give an inviting, upscale dining environment, Newk’s incorporates large amounts of stainless steel, large tiles, glass, stucco and brick walls, wooden tables and chairs and more. Outdoor tables are also available. The kitchen is in full view, giving patrons a visual frame of reference.

“We want the customer to feel as if they are in another world, a place to slow down and enjoy their meal,” Chris said.
While Newk’s wants customers to savor their meal, it put the word “express” in its title for a reason. Chris said the new layout allows Newk’s to serve a higher volume of customers without losing quality. And, for those in a hurry, Newk’s offers a “grab-and-go” area stocked with sandwiches, salads and more sold by the half-pound and pound.

The partners are focused on growth. In November 2005, there was the single Oxford Newk’s. By November 2006, Newk’s will have nine restaurants in operation. Franchisees Mack and Vickie Grubbs opened a Newk’s in Hattiesburg in May. Earlier this month, Newco opened a 170-seat café in Flowood on Lakeland Drive. Other eateries are opening in Clinton, Collierville, Tenn., and Tuscaloosa, Ala

Chris said Newco plans to sell 20 Newk’s franchises across the Southeast. Each café employs on average 60 workers plus five managers.

Old and new

While Newk’s represents a departure from McAlister’s, a number of elements have been retained beyond the quick-casual concept.

Chris said one of the keys to success is the ownership structure. Chris handles operations, Dr. Newcomb handles franchising and Bryson oversees finances and décor. It is a time-tested team with each respecting the others’ territory.
Another McAlister’s holdover is finding owners from within. Newk’s plans on cultivating employees deemed potential franchisees. The company matches those Newk’s employees with start-up capital. It worked at McAlister’s, and Newco is confident it will work at Newk’s, too.

High expectations

Newco’s past achievements have set high expectations for the new venture. So, is Newco pleased with how Newk’s has performed to date?

“Oh, my expectations have been far exceeded,” Chris said. “We have been fortunate to find some excellent franchisees, and we are receiving a lot of interest from a lot of people.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years now. The restaurant business is all I know. Dr. Newcomb, Debra and I obviously had an advantage from our previous experience with McAlister’s. We knew what to expect, pitfalls to avoid. We also learned how important training is, and that you have to be patient to find the best locations. We’re excited about the future of Newk’s.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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