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NEWK'S TURNS 10 YEARS OLD — Restaurant takes fast-casual to next level

In June 2006, Chris Newcomb surveyed his newest Newk’s restaurant location in Flowood. The eatery that began in Oxford had come out of the gates running in 2004, and Newcomb made it clear that his mission was to see more Newk’s in more locales.

Chris-Newcomb-Newks_rgbWhen asked that day what his future plans were for the then-new fast-casual restaurant, Newcomb told the Mississippi Business Journal succinctly, “To keep opening restaurants.”

In that, he has succeeded.

On the eve of celebrating its 10th anniversary, Newk’s now counts eateries in states from Texas to Maryland. And there are locations more coming with openings planned for Little Rock, Ark. (second location), Opelika, Ala., and Atlanta, according to the Newk’s web site.

“I think we fall into a good niche between fast-casual and fine dining,” Newcomb told the MBJ when asked about the keys to success. “We’re kind of that upscale, fast-casual. The food is made fresh. It’s made from scratch. You get table service. You can get beer and wine with your meal. It sets us apart.”

Newk’s actually represents the second successful restaurant launch for Newcomb and his co-founders — his father/dentist Dr. Don Newcomb and the dentist office’s manager Debra Bryson. None of them had any prior restaurant industry experience.

In the late 1980s, the trio bought a former gas station in Oxford and converted it into an eatery dubbed McAlister’s Deli. From that humble beginning, McAlister’s, which was a pioneer in the fast-casual restaurant concept, grew to locations across the country.

Over time, the Newcombs and Bryson began mulling a new restaurant, one that would take McAlister’s concept and move it up a notch toward fine dining. Following the McAlister’s model, the three opened the first Newk’s in Oxford in 2004. Seven months later, there were Newk’s scattered across the state and the horizons were wide.

It has not come without challenges, however. Like most restaurants, Newk’s felt the bite of the recent economic recession. But it was finding the right people that proved the largest obstacle.

“We’re in the restaurant business, but we’re not normal restaurateurs,” Newcomb told the MBJ. “We’re in it for more of a hospitality environment. Keeping the team happy and the team focused is our business challenge.”

While people have been a focus, so has technology, an important element in Newk’s continued growth.

“Here at Newk’s, I am fortunate to work with very skilled owners and operators who are very much open to exploring ways that technology can improve upon or supplement the processes that are already in place,” said Adam Karveller, Newk’s director of information technology. “We’re investing in cloud-based technologies that will allow our operations team to remotely view sales, labor, inventory and productivity information in real time.”

While embracing new technology, Newk’s has not lost site of what keeps customers coming back — the food. Today, Newk’s menu includes California-style pizzas, toasted sandwiches, soups, salads, children’s fare and desserts. For those on the run, it offers a grab-and-go menu. (Newk’s also caters.)

The success and growth has not gone unnoticed. In 2012, QSR magazine named Newk’s to its list of “Best Franchise Deals.” QSR wrote: “Since opening its first location in 2004 in the shadow of the University of Mississippi, this culinary-driven fast-casual has built a loyal customer base with a distinctive flavor profile characterized by ‘made from scratch, made fresh daily’ recipes.” A QSR reviewer added that Newk’s “tops anything I’ve seen in quite a while.”

Parent’s and Kid’s Magazine named it a “Family Favorite” in 2009. And the restaurant has garnered numerous “Best Of” awards over its history.

“Oh, my expectations have been far exceeded,” Newcomb said. “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.”

For more on Newk’s, visit www.newks.com. For franchising information, call the office on Crane Ridge Drive in Jackson at (601) 982-1160.



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About Wally Northway