Watch the full interview with Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley.
On March 27, 1990, Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley opened their first Zaxby's restaurant just 83 steps from where Statesboro's newest Zaxby's now sits.
Twenty five years and three days later, Zach and Tony sat down with me to discuss this incredible ride and to reminisce about the journey. Hundreds of Zaxby's "fanatics" waited in line overnight to be one of the first to eat at the new Zaxby's. Henry Doyle, owner of Henry's Haircuts, was the very first customer served by Zach and Tony in 1990. Monday they served Henry and his wife, Charlene, again - as the very first customers of Zaxby's newest store, which is the chain's 674th. It was a goose-bump moment, with memories flooding back for so many of us thinking about how far our community has grown along with Zaxby's.
"A lot of folks think we're in the chicken business selling to people, but the truth is we are in the people business selling chicken," McLeroy said. "That is what makes us special. When we opened the first Zaxby's our goal was to open six or eight stores and enjoy life. However, God had a little different plan for us."
Indeed, God did have a much different plan. He has blessed them in remarkable ways because they are not only great stewards of his blessings but they are humble, well-grounded and very grateful to everyone who "brought them to the dance."
More importantly, they continue to open doors and create phenomenal opportunities for young entrepreneurs from all walks of life. One of those is Marwan Yasin, vice president of operations for Zaxby's.
Marwan started as a cook at the very first Zaxby's, while finishing college at GSU. Marwan explained, "I have grown up with Zaxby's, it is the only job I have ever had. With Zaxby's there have been and continue to be opportunities for everyone. I am a great example of that."
Recalling how Zaxby's started, Townley said after he graduated from Georgia Southern with a BBA and emphasis in MIS, he went to work selling computer software.
"I quickly realized that was not my cup of tea so I went into the mortgage business," he said. "About that same time, Zach graduated from UGA with an Ag Econ degree and moved to Statesboro. He joined me and together we peddled mortgage loans until we realized we wanted to do something together. Zach actually lived across the street from the original Zaxby's in Bon-Anna apartments."
Do anything differently?
McLeroy: "Not really, we did it the right way, in terms of going into business we didn't owe too much money. Our first investment was $16,000. What we didn't have in cash for we borrowed on credit cards and a small business loan. So it was a small investment to start a business. We didn't have to borrow a million and half dollars to start a business. So there was a lot of upside in the very beginning because of that and we were not buried in debt."
Townley: "We were fortunate because Jimmy Hodges, president of First Bulloch Bank, gave us a small business loan on the building and that was a great, great help to jump start us. Even since Jimmy's retirement from banking and the sale to BB&T we continue to have a relationship with BB&T."
When did you know you were going to be successful?
McLeroy: "We were fortunate we opened in a college town because we were immediately embraced by the students. For me the moment was when you started seeing the same faces day in and day out coming back. We had some people who ate there five days per week. That was our sign that we were at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing and we were going to make it. It really helped that we were not over leveraged. Back then, a day's sale may have been $500, but at the end of the day we were still making money. Today our brand could not survive on that, now the investment is over $1.8 million to become a Zaxby's licensee. Because of this success, our initial expansion strategy was college campuses. We realized students have disposable income and they all love to eat out. Because of the reception we had here in Statesboro we thought it would be a good strategy to open our next store near a college. That second store was in Valdosta, Georgia."
What is your strategy to nationalize the brand?
Townley: "Presently we are in Utah. Stores out there have been received very well. As far west, other than Utah, is Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. We are growing in that direction and trying to put the pieces in place so it is smart growth rather than just growing for the sake of growing. We would love to be out on the West Coast, but of course it is going to take time to get there. We do have the demand, it is just putting all the pieces in place - transportation, distribution, servicing stores and other key components."
McLeroy: "Those are some of the challenges we face. Of course, we want to become a nationwide brand, it is one of our goals and we will be there one day once we meet the challenges that Tony spoke about. What is really funny to me, most of the people here today weren't born when we opened the first store 25 years ago. To see these other generations being here, following Zaxby's and being a fan of Zaxby's is a big deal to me. That kind of makes me feel like we have longevity, and I think we have proven that being in business for 25 years and what we have done. We look forward to being a national brand."
New prototype store
McLeroy: "This is the new face of Zaxby's. We have, of course, evolved a lot over the course of the last 25 years. I guess mostly from the consumer standpoint, our building is what they see and know us by is our signage and buildings. Over the years we have had a lot of copycats, so to speak, trying to copy our look. For the last couple of years I have been working on various looks that makes us really stand out and be different I think something that compliments the menus we serve is how I came up with this farmhouse style look. It is very vintage and nostalgic, adding in all the textures from the bricks, flooring and wood on the walls. I think now we have a building that separates us from the competition and makes us really stand out. So far, people have really embraced our new look.
What is next for Statesboro?
Townley: "In the near future, out next goal is to do some type of remodeling of the existing facility on Fair Road. We had to take some pressure off of that store for traffic and other reasons. Now that this store is open today we are hopeful that will allow us now to focus on breathing some freshness into that building."
The full interview with Zach and Tony will be available online at www.statesboroherald.com. You can hear more there about their phenomenal marketing campaigns, NASCAR support and learn about their interest in duck hunting with the "Duck Commander."
As for Zach and Tony's favorite menu item - it is the "Kicken' Chicken Sandwich."
ULTA Beauty has signed a lease for a location beside Petco in Statesboro Crossings. Construction has begun on the 10,000 square foot store. It will include a 950 square foot salon.