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Fayetteville-based restaurant chain Slim Chickens will soon be opening locations in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Slim Chickens has signed a franchise agreement with Boparan Restaurant Group in England. The Boparan Group runs food production and restaurants and is owned by Ranjit Boparan, known as the "Chicken King" because of his 2Sisters poultry business.

Slim Chickens Chief Executive Officer Tom Gordon said he expects the first U.K. location to open in London this quarter, likely in late March.

"They're swinging hammers right now," he said

This will be the second overseas move by Slim Chickens. In 2017 it signed a master franchise agreement with Kuwait-based Alghanim to open Slim Chickens branded restaurants on the Saudi Arabian peninsula, opening its first one in the summer. A second store is to open this calendar year.

Slim Chickens restaurants have popped up steadily around the United States, with the majority of the locations in the South, with the long-term goal of opening 600 restaurants. The company was founded in 2003 and is privately owned.

In March the chain expects to open a store in Springdale, its 70th location and the London store will be No. 71. Seventeen of the stores are owned and operated by Slim Chickens while 53 are franchise stores.

Slim Chickens competes in the fast-casual segment, where restaurants provide a slightly more formal dining experience compared with fast-food operations. While fast-casual restaurants don't have a wait staff, servers generally hand customers their food. Part of the package is a comfortable atmosphere, usually including music, big-screen TVs and catchy graphics.

"In the UK there's a big opportunity in the fast-casual chicken segment with little existing competition in the marketplace," said Tom Crowley, CEO of Boparan Restaurant Group, in a statement. "We were looking for a progressive concept that would fill this gap and Slim Chickens was the perfect fit. We loved the product and the design and branding have a modern approach."

A presentation by Darren Tristano, the chief insight officer for industry consultant Technomic, noted the fast casual segment is part of the $268 billion limited service category, where it made up 18 percent of the segment with $47 billion in sales for 2016. The report projected sales by 2021 could hit $74 billion.

Mexican restaurants made up 19 percent of the fast-casual market in 2016, tying with the bakery cafe segment, also at 19 percent, for the largest market share by revenue. Sandwich shops came in second with 18 percent market share and chicken was fourth with 12 percent.

Aaron Jourden, senior research manager for Technomic, said in response to email questions it's likely Slim Chickens will be popular in the U.K. but added competition there will be significant.

"Fast-casual is a promising segment in the U.K. right now, and the focus and quality of the chain's menu should hold a strong appeal in the market. A differentiator will be the brand's regional appeal as a specialist from the American South," he wrote. "But competition in the U.K. is stiff. It's a mature market with many established players."

He said working with the well-established Boparan Restaurant Group is a real advantage for Slim Chickens.

"These operators can bring a wealth of insight and experience to the partnership, from site selection and knowledge of the target consumer to how to localize the menu," Jourden said.

Gordon said the Slim Chickens brand will be identical to the one in the U.S., with its focus on quality products with special dipping sauces. He said the major change will be far less emphasis on drive-thru with most if not all locations being primarily sit-down restaurants, since the drive-thru concept is uncommon in the U.K.

SundayMonday Business on 02/11/2018

Print Headline: Chicken chain sets up overseas

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