Zaxbys Photos 317 copy

Zaxby’s franchise and other locations stay true to its mission

of offering ‘indescribably good’ and ‘cravealicious’ food.

By Jim Harris

During their grade school and high school years in Georgia, Zach McLeroy and Tony Townley often found themselves working together. The pair worked on farms, construction sites and other odd jobs before going their separate ways in college.

After earning their degrees, McLeroy and Townley were reunited when McLeroy went to work for Townley, who at the time was in the mortgage business. After a while, McLeroy realized that he’d rather be doing something else. “I told [Townley] that the mortgage business wasn’t my cup of tea, and I really wanted to work in restaurants,” he says.

McLeroy was no stranger to the restaurant business, having worked in the foodservice industry during college in a number of capacities including as a cook and waiter. Townley, whose past jobs also included restaurants as well as grocery stores, decided to partner with his longtime friend to open their own restaurant.Zaxbys Fact Box

“One of the things that drew me to the foodservice industry was interaction with the community,” he says. “I knew that a restaurant was doing something right when it had the same people coming in again and again; I wanted to help create the sort of environment that guests would return to.”

When deciding what kind of food to serve, the two derived inspiration from one of their past jobs together – working at a chicken farm. McLeroy and Townley also found the chicken and chicken wings available in their college of Statesboro, Ga., to be wanting compared to what they were used to eating in other college towns.

Their restaurant – Zaxby’s – opened its doors in 1990 with a menu of chicken fingers and chicken wings made from sauces developed by McLeroy. “We didn’t have a lot of management experience, but what we did bring to the table was the tenacity to work very hard and figure things out,” Townley says, noting the two worked 18-hour days almost every day of the week and “pounded the pavement” to generate interest in the restaurant.

Within its first three years in business, Zaxby’s proved successful enough that the pair had opened four additional locations, all of which they owned and operated. McLeroy and Townley began expanding the brand in 1994 when they sold their first franchise.

The company’s franchisees share the same entrepreneurial spirit that united McLeroy and Townley 26 years ago. “We’re looking for hard workers with good morals who want to be in business for the right reasons,” McLeroy says.

Building a Culture

The fast-casual restaurant brand today operates in 17 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Virginia. Zaxby’s in October opened its 800th store in Mustang, Okla. Four additional locations have opened since then, Townley says.

There are a number of reasons why Zaxby’s has proven to be a popular brand with franchisees. “If you’re a prospective franchisee and you’re doing a risk/reward analysis of Zaxby’s versus other brands, there are two things in our franchise disclosure document I think are paramount,” Townley says. “One is our history of never having any litigation with a franchisee, and the other is the small number of store closures we’ve had – less than one-and-a-half percent of the stores we’ve opened have closed.”

Although these two facts alone make a compelling argument for why a franchisee should open a Zaxby’s, Townley says the company’s culture is ultimately its biggest asset. “We’ve always been very proactive in trying to resolve any sort of dispute, and we always try to over-deliver to our franchisees beyond the contract,” he says, noting that 89 percent of the company’s franchise owners operate more than one location.

“We’re driven around relationships, culture and flavor – we touch all of the most important bases that our franchisees look for and then some,” he adds. 

Zaxby’s Franchising LLC, located in Athens, Ga., provides a number of start-up and support services to its franchisees. This includes offering site selection guidance, construction assistance and marketing programs. “From the time they sign the agreement to the time they enter the system and beyond, we’re there,” Townley says. “Our franchisees believe in our system and are comfortable with the relationship they have with us and the return they receive on their investment. I don’t think they’d come back for more and open additional locations if it wasn’t for our relationship with them, which we value as much as they do.”

Going National

Zaxby’s has also proven popular with customers drawn to its promise of “indescribably good” and “cravealicious” food. “The flavor of our food is our driving force, and our service enhances our experience,” McLeroy says. “We’ve always been about food and flavor; that’s the easy part. The challenging part is delivering on the customer experience.”

The company’s corporate and franchise locations use many of the same recipes McLeroy developed 26 years ago, while regularly developing new sauce flavors. All of the chicken served at Zaxby’s is fresh and hand-breaded and fried in its kitchens. In addition to chicken fingers and wings, Zaxby’s also offers sandwiches and salads. 

Zaxby’s recently began a rebranding campaign meant to refresh its look as well as enhance customer experience. The rebranding includes introducing new menu boards, refreshing the company’s logo and establishing a new restaurant design. The exterior of the new restaurant design is patterned after a farmhouse, while the interior includes a “vintage but modern” look, McLeroy says.

“For us, rebranding is about focusing on what we’ve always done, while making our brand more apparent to our guests,” he adds. “We’ve always been about flavor, food and the Zaxby’s experience – we want these things to flow  through everything we do.”

The company continues to add new locations at a rapid rate, and anticipates opening its 1,000th store within the next 36 months. Zaxby’s is pursuing locations in the West and Midwest while adding to its base in the southern United States.

“We view the brand as a national brand; we are strong regionally and growing and emerging outside of our core market,” Townley says. “We started this company 26-and-a-half years ago, and we don’t see any signs of stopping.”


On The Road

This fall, Zaxby’s took to the road as a part of its effort to enhance its customer experience and spread its brand. The company – in partnership with event agency IMG – brought “Zaxby’s Fanz of Flavor,” an interactive tailgate experience, to 12 games at university campuses in the South this football season.

The event includes a virtual reality experience that recreates a Zaxby’s location. Each session is captured on video and emailed to participants. In addition to the virtual reality experience, fans will have an opportunity to compete for prizes at “Flavorize Your Fandom” stations and deck themselves out in body paint with help from two master body painters, the company says.



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