The 'Best Sports Bar in America' is Ready for Primetime
Attention from franchisees, NFL legends, and the Worldwide Leader in Sports hasn’t changed Walk-On's Bistreaux & Bar a bit. Just listen to its COO and president, Scott Taylor, talk about what makes the company tick.
“I always tell [the owner Brandon Landry] it must have been tough. You started in high school for your basketball team. You got all the girls, all the attention, and the all the friends,” he says. “Then suddenly you’re a benchwarmer when you get to college. It’s kind of a humbling experience, and it kind of translates to how we run the business.”
Team before self. The name on the front, not the back. It’s not about you, it’s about the team. These adages are the lifeblood of Walk-On’s, Taylor explains. And it’s not just a series of tired tags wrapped inside a cheesy sports movie. “The story is real,” Taylor says. “It wasn’t made up or bought. [We are] the underdog story.”
Taylor is currently sitting at the controls of a company ready for its national close-up. Walk-On’s, which started in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2003 and spread to 12 locations, has 106 commitments in the pipeline. That would place Walk-On’s in 13 states: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and New Jersey. Within five years, Taylor says he can see the brand easily in 22—25 markets, opening 25 or so restaurants a year, and pushing 130—150 units. Taylor, who has “been a franchising guy” for 15 years, understands growth of this significance is just a trigger point. A large system can fuel itself from a training and opening perspective, which only accelerates the process. Every current franchisee who is signed up is either working on their second store or has already acquired another territory, Taylor says. In other terms, he couldn’t scrape Walk-On’s ceiling if he stood on stacked ladders.
“I see the brand working in every market across the company,” Taylor says. “This is really just the beginning.”
Walk-On’s was started by Brandon Landry and Jack Warner, two walk-ons for LSU’s basketball team. During a plane ride home from Tennessee, the pair sketched a floor plan for the concept on the back of a napkin. They submitted the business plan to a professor and received a C in response. Six banks denied them a loan. When the seventh agreed, Landry and Warner brought Walk-On’s to life. Warner has since moved on to other ventures after selling his stake.
Naturally, much has changed over the years, but that blue-collar spirit has remained in tact. It’s what’s driving Walk-On’s growth and dedication to constant betterment, Taylor says.
In 2012, ESPN named Walk-On’s “The Best Sports Bar in America” on the heels of a banner year in Louisiana. The New Orleans Saints made the playoffs. The BCS Championship featured Alabama and LSU in an all-SEC blockbuster.
“It definitely put us on the map in New Orleans,” Taylor says, who came to the company in 2010. When Taylor first arrived, Walk-On’s had two units and wouldn’t kick up the franchising topic for another couple of years. In fact, they originally considered franchising the company’s pizza concept but changed course when ESPN’s award turned on the spotlight.
Inquiries started filing in from around the country. “People wanted to know more about it,” Taylor says. “They were asking, ‘How can I open one of these in my neighborhood?’ So at that point we thought about it and looked at the possibilities.”
Before Walk-On’s official launch, the brand fielded an intriguing call. Drew Brees, the 10-time Pro Bowl quarterback of the Saints, was a regular sight at the restaurant. He would often take his offensive line to dinner and host private events from time to time. One day, his agent phoned Walk-On’s corporate office and asked to speak to Landry.
“The first time I walked into a Walk-On’s, I looked around and said, ‘If I was ever to create my own sports bar, it would be just like this,” Brees says in a video Walk-On’s recorded for its first conference a few months back.
“He’s like, ‘Looking at what you guys are doing, I wouldn’t change a thing. I just want to see if I can be a part of it,’” Taylor recalls.
Brees purchased 25 percent of the company in May 2015. Taylor says he’s fully engaged and will likely become even more so once his football career comes to a close.
Meanwhile, Walk-On’s suddenly had a brand ambassador that was, pun intended, a touchdown for the chain. “Whether you’re a Drew Brees fan or not, if you’re a good guy fan, you like Drew Brees,” he says. “He’s just that guy. He’s a family guy. He’s genuine. There are no skeletons in his closet. He speaks well to people about us and he’s been able to make connections with different folks maybe we couldn’t have made on our own.”
Brees attends conferences with Walk-On’s and is a part of the company’s strategic discussions for growth.
Speaking of, Walk-On’s air of teamwork has spread to expansion as well. Similar to a strategy employed by Outback Steakhouse back in the day, Walk-On’s structures its franchise agreements into a two-party system. There’s a franchisee who buys in and an operating partner who runs the restaurant. This person, who is like a general manager of the concept, has a stake in the business and works “toward building something for their future. They’re highly engaged in doing things the right way. Driving profitably. Driving sales,” Taylor says.
Walk-On’s requires this model for all new agreements. The why of it being that Taylor says an operating partner is far more likely to care about the restaurant than a general manager simply clocking time and collecting paychecks. It also opens the entrepreneurial door for somebody who couldn’t front the capital for their own franchise.
“This is their bread and butter,” Taylor says. “You’re highly incentivized as an owner to run something differently than you are as a manager with a bonus plan. We think that ownership plan really translates to success as a business.”
It works from the other side as well. Many franchisees who buy in are looking at becoming multi-unit operators or successful businessmen. They’re not always interested in the day-to-day grind. “A guy or girl who has accumulated the wealth to open a Walk-On’s probably doesn’t want to be in there every day, doing inventory, closing. Running a restaurant is hard,” Taylor says. “But you can enjoy owning a restaurant and have that partner in there that takes care of the day to day and you can still take care of the top-line community involvement things and do all of the things outside the four walls that will help the business be successful. It’s a dual approach.”
Every operating partner completes a four-month training program and Walk-On’s sends 14 people for 17 days to each new location to make sure the procedures measure up and the culture aligns.
One of those points, of course, is what Taylor says differentiates Walk-On’s from the sports bars and chicken-wing joints of the world. The restaurant reports 75—80 percent food sales. Typically, a sports bar’s alcohol sales will hover around 40—45 percent.
Taylor says this can be credited to Walk-On’s being “very much a restaurant,” as well as the fact that it’s family friendly and not “that typical sports bar environment where it’s loud and maybe a little bit too rowdy, and the language is not where you would bring your family.”
Walk-On’s menu is unlike any sports bar chain as well. The unit’s senior line cooks wear chef’s coats. It’s a scratch kitchen. Shrimp is peeled each day. Nothing is frozen or pre-breaded.
When perspective franchisees visit, the team will host what it calls a “Cajun Thanksgiving.”
“We’ll just eat our way through the menu and by the time they’re done they’re blown away with the quality,” Taylor says. “… That translates into what the consumer sees and these perspective franchisees get excited about it.”
And it’s not every restaurant in America where you can catch a sports game and order Duck & Andouille Gumbo, Crawfish Étouffée, and Fried Louisiana Alligator.
In the Lubbock, Texas, location, the company’s first store to open outside of Louisiana, which arrived in October 2016 and is already the highest-revenue store in the system, Taylor says the Cajun items are being sold at a higher clip than in Baton Rouge. It’s one of the reasons he thinks Walk-On’s will thrive across the nation.
Taylor was speaking to somebody recently about this very topic. “He said, ‘What’s so big about Louisiana?’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, this is a Louisiana-themed sports bar, what do you think of? You think of Mardi Gras. You think of great chefs. You think of fun, beads. People getting crazy and having a good time,” says Taylor, who hails from Florida. “When you think of Louisiana you think of good food and good times. I think that tag for us creates interest wherever we go.”
Walk-On’s will go wherever as well. Taylor says he can see the brand in airports, traditional locations, and college campuses from coast to coast.
“We’re extremely excited. We know people are going to love the fun, the culture, the focus on great food in a sports environment,” he says. “There are not many people doing that and doing it in the type of environment we’re doing it in.”