Max Sheets, the founder and CEO of fast-casual Chick N Max, which launched in Wichita, Ks. in January 2018, knew from its beginning that it faced a slew of crispy chicken competitors, but was undeterred. Sheets says “Chicken consumption outpaces all other segments and is continuing to grow.” Moreover, he developed a niche smoked chicken that he feels differentiates it from its many competitors.
He now has three Chick N Max locations in Wichita, with two under construction, and two more in the permitting process. The three opened are company-owned, and the new ones under development will all be franchised, in Texas, South Dakota and Oklahoma.
Sheets, who has nearly 30 years managerial experience at Smashburger, Ted’s Montana Grill and Freddy’s Frozen Custard, also has a good sense of humor. He named it Chick N Max to signify that it offered more than chicken sandwiches and with a glint in his eye that it was started by a guy named Max.
“It was time,” he says, “if I ever wanted to create a legacy brand that will be here a long time, to create a niche to separate my new restaurant chain. We created a healthy platform that the others don’t offer.”
He experimented with a big smoker in his backyard in Wichita, using various BBQ flavors including hickory and mesquite and settled on almond wood because of its unique flavor.
Its core menu serves almond wood-smoked chicken in quarters, half-birds and pulled chicken, “but it’s not fried. Hence “it differentiates the brand from a healthy perspective,” he adds, compared to Wingstop
Its meals also come with a choice of ten tangy sauces that includes ranch, honey mustard, BBQ, and jalapeno lime. And it offers healthy salads combined with its pulled and smoked chickens.
Yet Sheets acknowledges that it sells chicken maple bacon sandwiches, though bacon has nitrates and isn’t healthy. “We sell food that people like to order, and people love the flavor of bacon,” he says.
Opening in Wichita cost $350,000, which Sheets capitalized with personal funds. Having opened three Chick N Max that are thriving, he has proven the concept by using his own capital.
Franchising will allow him to “expand and put us on a national footprint more rapidly. As long as I’m working with the right franchisees, who embody our culture, which is a people-first culture, we’ll be fine,” he explains.
The staff at Chick N Max determines its success because they “meet and greet our guests, take our orders, ensure their accuracy, make and assemble the food, wash the dishes and manage the operations,” he asserts.
Isn’t he giving up control of the operations when franchising? Sheets says, “No, because we have an extremely tight operations manual, training for everyone who’s going to run it, and we have people who inspect their restaurants.”
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, drive-thru sales escalated to the point where it generated about 60% of sales and remain at about 40% of overall revenue, Sheets says. “We watch our drive-thru time like a hawk, and focus on getting better faster,” he says.
But Sheets has its eyes on rapid expansion. He expects five to seven new franchised stores opening in 2023. In the pipeline, he envisions over 60 new franchises in the future and is creating a specialized franchise sales department to help achieve that growth.
Customer comments on Yelp underscore that its clientele is aware of the intense chicken competition. Tom, for example, wrote “Another chicken place, you say. Yes, but the kicker is Chick N Max has expanded the options and has great sides. Would definitely go back next time I’m in Wichita.”
But another customer named Bear was less satisfied. She usually dines at KFC, ordered the half chicken meal combo at Chick N Max and found the chicken “juicy and smoky but the skin was bland and so was the chicken.” She liked the onion rings and fries on the side. Her mother-in-law liked the mac and cheese and hush puppies.
Sheets says his managers read these consumer reviews, respond in 24 hours, try to respond to “negative reviews and make it right.”
He’s well-versed in restaurant expansion. When he joined Lone Star Steakhouse they had 40 locations, which expanded to 300 by the time he left.
He described the keys to its future success as “people, evolving the concept and making it better, and generating capital through private equity, venture capital or an IPO.”