How Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux Exudes First-String Quality As The Franchise Brand Expands Nationwide Footprint
The restaurant industry has been far from easy in 2020. But Brandon Landry and Jack Warner, the co-founders of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, know the hard work it takes to persevere. As former Division 1 walk-ons for the LSU basketball team, the two started Walk-On’s to bring everyone a great restaurant and sports bar. I sat down to learn more about the journey of launching Walk-On’s and how the business has been able to overcome the challenges of both restaurants and sports during the pandemic.
Dave Knox: I want to start with the backstory of Walk-On’s. Where did the inspiration for the business come from and how has that original vision evolved since launching this brand?
Brandon Landry: This brand is very personal to me and is a part of my identity. Myself and co-founder Jack Warner became friends when we were both walk-ons for the Louisiana State University (LSU) basketball team. After traveling across the country for games, we realized that our home base, Baton Rouge, needed a great restaurant and sports bar much like the ones we had eaten at on the road. On a plane ride home from a game at the University of Tennessee, we sketched out the floorplan for our dream restaurant – which later became Walk-On’s.
In 2003, with little money or business experience, we relied on the traits of a walk-on – hard work, dedication and a commitment to excellence – and opened the first Walk-On’s in the shadows of LSU’s Tiger Stadium.
Since then, we’re keeping the Walk-On mentality intact, while also elevating our brand to truly showcase the value and quality of our menu and our brand persona – going beyond just being restaurant or a sports bar, but a lifestyle brand we’ve coined ‘Sports Bistreaux.’
Knox: The Walk-On’s concept is very unique, rooted in your personal journey of being a Walk-On for the LSU basketball team. How has the Walk-On mindset carried you through challenges and short-comings during the pandemic?
Landry: I always led through the mentality of a walk-on – meaning you have the responsibility to support your team unconditionally no matter the situation, even as an underdog. This became especially important throughout the pandemic as we all felt like a bit of the underdog against an invisible enemy but coming together, supporting each other, and giving back, the brand was able to come out on top.
Knox: Walk-On’s is very keen on its team-centric culture, how has that impacted the brand’s overall success on the franchise and corporate level?
Landry: The team-centric culture starts at the top – with myself and our leadership team. Ours is a culture of walk-ons, “Team before self, name on the front of the jersey – not the back” and “Playing for the love of the game.” Our culture is somewhat of the underdog story combined with the “teams don’t win with individuals” – we include our entire corporate team in offsite planning sessions, conferences, etc., and want everyone to be exposed to the industry, network, and learn. The team wins together, and we must constantly improve. Our co-owner, Drew Brees, is also a big advocate for teamwork as a winning strategy. 2015 was a significant year, as he approached me, and after several conversations, bought a 25 percent stake in the company.
In terms of franchisee recruitment, we have learned the importance of partnering with local franchisees that live and breathe our company’s core values in order to successfully bring the Walk-On’s brand to life in those markets. We seek partners who are passionate about our vision, are team players, and thrive on bringing the best service to their team and community.
Knox: As a whole, the pandemic posed a unique challenge for the restaurant industry, requiring many restaurant concepts to get creative in terms of occupancy, drive-ups, mobile apps and delivery options to better serve their communities and ensure safety. What has Walk-On’s done to stay relevant in the industry?
Landry: When the pandemic first began to impact the nation, we knew we had to do our part and use our platform to help families in need. We debuted “Furlough Kitchen by Walk-On’s,” a non-profit organization that provided furloughed hospitality workers free meals, no matter their former employer. The initiative served over 30,000 meals with more than 20 activations across five states.
As the pandemic continued, we really started to think about how we could successfully pivot and continue operations. Within a matter of days, we had erected “drive thru service,” curbside pickup, and creative family meal deals to address the need of a very value-focused consumer during uncertain times. For Walk-On’s these changes allowed us to claw back about 60% of those initial losses while using closed dining rooms as staging areas for takeout and large catering platters. Not only did the pandemic bring forth a new wave of innovation, but it forced leaders to be aggressive vs. conservative – realizing the value of not only preparing for the future, but acting on it sooner.
Riding on the heels of our “To-Geaux” platform, we wanted to take it a step further, so we began offering “groceries to geaux” which included items ranging from toilet paper, gloves, as well as beverages, to take-and-bake family meal options to further support our communities.
Knox: Talk to us about the importance of community in times of crisis? How does this impact overall success?
Landry: We are so appreciative our fans in our communities – and we felt the need to step up during a time where they needed us most. Being able to be present and immersed in your community, knowing you’re making a difference outside of your service offerings, is when you’ll start to reap the benefits of success. It simply comes down to doing the right thing, treating people with compassion, and being there as a community partner during difficult times.
Knox: Walk-On’s has a very bold and upbeat brand persona. How are you able to keep this culture in-tact despite the challenges inflicted by the pandemic?
Landry: In order to keep your company’s culture intact, whether it’s in the midst of a pandemic or not, starts with you as the leader.
The pandemic was a great reminder of the importance of vulnerability in leadership – we were sharing issues, discussing challenges, asking for help, and being transparent with the system on the state of the business and our plan of attack.
When you do this, your team will too, and together you can work toward creative solutions more effectively and efficiently. Our culture serves as our guiding light for every decision we make, and is strong enough that everyone will fight for it – we’re all working together to propel this brand to greatness.
I truly credit our culture for our ability to successfully adapt business operations, retain staff, continue to open new restaurants, and sign multi-unit agreements as COVID-19 rages on.
Knox: How have you adapted your growth strategy, and what does that mean for the future of Walk-On’s?
Landry: The pandemic has brought forth a new wave of innovation – whether it is the use of new technology, AI, social distance-friendly models, new products/services, or an all new arm of the business, our team is committed to the future – realizing the value of not only preparing for what’s next, but acting on it sooner.
Despite the factors inflicted by pandemic on this industry, we were still able to open 10 new locations in 2020, and have plans to open five more by year-end. Earlier this month, we actually announced our partnership with 10 Point Capital, which will help us meet our goal of opening 150 new locations over the next five years. All of our success wouldn’t mean anything without our dedicated network of franchisees, who have truly been at the forefront, and our loyal fans who continue to show up and support us. It’s extremely humbling to see.