Baton Rouge is a city that pretty much gets lost in the food conversation. Maybe it’s the curse of being neighbors with New Orleans, one of the world’s greatest foodie delights. Maybe it’s having Lafayette, Acadiana and all things black fried and Cajun just 45 minutes to the west. Or maybe it’s because Baton Rouge is … well … understated Baton Rouge.
Whatever the reason, Baton Rouge isn’t the kind of city that immediately comes to mind when the conversation is cuisine.
Yet over the past several years, the city has indeed become something of a culinary hub, heralded by headlines as “an underrated food city” (USA Today), “Louisiana’s premier destination for down home food and Southern hospitality” (The Daily Meal) and “Louisiana’s culinary capital” (Wine Enthusiast)—take that, New Orleans—and the recent wave of recognition is undoubtedly welcomed.
Though the focus seems to be on what’s happening within Baton Rouge’s food culture, what’s fascinating are those restaurant entrepreneurs who are expanding their brands—and management influence—far beyond the city limits.
It’s more far-reaching than you might realize. Some homegrown restaurants, like LIT Pizza, are leaving their mark in other pockets of the state. Others, like Walk-On’s, are meandering across the country. McDonald’s franchisee Valluzzo Companies, on the other hand, is expanding its regional holdings into other states. Then there’s the fast-growing Raising Cane’s, which is master-planning a global footprint for the years to come. Throw in a face like Chef Jay Ducote—who, outside of the Red Stick, is perhaps most recognizable to Food Network viewers from his 12 consecutive episodes on “Food Network Star,” where he finished as runner-up—and Baton Rouge proves a burgeoning force within the $3.4 trillion global food industry.
This isn’t about fine dining or some new twist on a cultural favorite. Rather, it’s about the business of restaurants, and how these five entrepreneurs are expanding their reach—and revenue streams—through expansion and franchise campaigns.
So, why now?
Nationally, fast-casual and quick-service chains are picking up the slack from sluggish overall restaurant sales, taking business from casual family dining concepts that are shuttering locations en masse. For Baton Rouge’s fast-growing food brands, that opens up a window of opportunity.
Each has their own approach. Todd Graves and Raising Cane’s are nearly four years into an aggressive, five-year growth strategy where corporate- and franchise-owned locations have been opening at a roughly 2-to-1 ratio since 2016.
Michael Valluzzo is leveraging the family’s long involvement with McDonald’s by maintaining relationships with a network of franchisee contacts and stepping forward to buy when one looks to sell. It also helps that McDonald’s is enjoying its best sales growth in six years under CEO Steve Easterbrook (who has resigned since this story’s original publication).
Franchising is the play being taken by Brandon Landry and Walk-On’s, which saw room for rapid, “circular” out-of-state growth after launching its franchise program in 2014 and securing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees as an investor the following year.
For Ozzie Fernandez and LIT Pizza, the franchise expansion is being financed by an investment group led by prominent local attorney Gordon McKernan, who funds new restaurant openings on an ongoing basis.
As for Ducote, sparking his latest brand-growth focus has been the September acquisition of his businesses and brands by locally based Guaranty Corporation.
Whatever their reasons or strategies, each makes clear the concept of growing to simply grow isn’t sustainable. For long-term success, these Baton Rouge brands must stick to their roots, following an expansion strategy that organically works for them.
But with growth comes challenges—whether it’s finding available real estate, picking the right franchisees in the right markets, staying up-to-date with the latest restaurant technology or maintaining control over each restaurant amid a swelling portfolio.
And then there are those juggling multiple ventures. Landry is also an investor in the new quick-service concept Smalls Sliders, which is run by his nephew. Fernandez also owns Izzo’s Illegal Burrito, Rocca Pizzeria and Central Kitchen, and has plans to soon open a taqueria called Modesto. And Ducote is preparing to move Gov’t Taco, his quick-serve gourmet taco concept, out of its White Star Market stall and into a brick-and-mortar location down Government Street.
However, with more openings, acquisitions and strategic moves planned for the coming years, these five local entrepreneurs show no signs of slowing down.
Raising Cane’s: Taking on the world
“Our vision is to have restaurants all over the world.
So, in a lot of ways, I feel like we’re just getting started.”
TODD GRAVES, founder and CEO, Raising Cane’s
Across Louisiana, the story of Todd Graves and his ascent to success has become part of the cultural canon. But it also rings a familiar tune for millions of other chicken-eaters across the U.S. and parts of Asia.
Today, Raising Cane’s has 447 locations in 27 states—plus an additional 23 in the Middle East—and is on track to generate $1.5 billion in sales by the end of the year. Come 2020, the chain is projecting $2 billion in sales from some 550 restaurants across the world, including the more than 70 slated to open next year.
Since then, Graves has added locations mostly throughout the South, West and Midwest, while also partnering with a fast-growing Middle Eastern franchisee to open locations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
“Our vision is to have restaurants all over the world,” Graves says. “So, in a lot of ways, I feel like we’re just getting started.”
For Graves, some of the new openings have struck a sentimental chord. A ribbon-cutting for the chain’s first Alaska location, for example, evoked memories of his days spent working there as a commercial fisherman to raise money for the first Cane’s restaurant, which opened on Highland Road, near LSU, in 1996.
Since then, he’s learned a thing or two about scaling up a business. As a young entrepreneur, Graves created a lender account every time he opened a new restaurant—a financial risk he never wants to repeat. He also wants greater hands-on control of his brand, so Cane’s no longer franchises domestically.
More than anything, Graves has learned that people resonate best with milestones. That’s why the chain’s next phases of strategic planning—to be ironed out in the first quarter of 2020—will measure success in terms of what Cane’s will look like once it becomes a $3 billion company, then a $5 billion company and so forth, focusing more on organic growth and less on timelines and location counts.
“It’s not so much about the number of sales, it’s more about how many happy customers we’re serving and how much we’re giving back to the community,” Graves says. “I want people to shoot for these goals around the same timelines, but if they get there sooner or later, that’s just how the business performed.”
With an eye toward future expansion into several Northeastern U.S. cities, as well as Asia, Graves says he has no interest in going public.
Walk-On’s Enterprises: Scouting the country
“There’s something to be said about being
the big fish in the small pond.”
BRANDON LANDRY, founder, co-owner and CEO, Walk-On’s Enterprises
As a former LSU basketball team walk-on, Brandon Landry is no stranger to the underdog story; in fact, he capitalized on the concept in 2003, opening the first Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux & Bar around on Burbank Drive. No one thought the sports bar would work, but it did, and when no one thought it would work in Lafayette and New Orleans, Walk-On’s again overcame the odds.
But it took winning one major accolade—ESPN‘s #1 College Sports Bar in America, in 2012—for Landry to begin considering expanding Walk-On’s beyond its then-small, southeastern Louisiana market.
The brand has grown to now include 32 restaurants in six states, with plans to soon enter the Arkansas and South Carolina markets. Landry expects to finish 2020 with more than 50 open restaurants across at least 10 states—and, while the process has been somewhat slowed by a tight real estate market, between 20 and 25 more new locations are still planned for next year.
“It’s an interesting path, but there’s no set number we’re trying to get to and no set sales volume,” Landry says. “We’re just growing at a pace that we’re comfortable with.”
The strategy apparently works: Though one restaurant has relocated (from Coursey Boulevard to Towne Center at Cedar Lodge), not a single Walk-On’s has permanently closed to date.
Much of the company’s growth has been fueled by the 2014 launch of a franchising program, with nearly all of its open locations currently franchise-owned.
Further spurring outside interest in the company was a 2015 partnership with Drew Brees, who bought into 25% of the company. Now, the quarterback occasionally tags along with Landry to visit new markets, promoting the brand to his millions of social media followers. When Brees invested in the company, revenues were reportedly around $30 million; today, it’s expected to hit the $250 million mark.
Generally, Landry is looking for future growth in high-density metro areas, like Dallas-Fort Worth, as well as smaller, tertiary markets with a loyal customer base—akin to its high-performing Lubbock, Texas, location.
“There’s something to be said about being the big fish in the small pond,” he says.
Valluzzo Companies: Smart, contiguous growth
“Our focus has always been on smart, contiguous growth—taking our time and finding the right opportunity that fits with our conservative growth model and is something we can handle operationally.”
MICHAEL VALLUZZO, owner-operator, Valluzzo Companies
As a fourth-generation McDonald’s owner-operator, Michael Valluzzo says he feels a deep, DNA-like connection with the brand known for Happy Meals, Big Macs and a clown named Ronald McDonald.
Nearly 60 years ago, his paternal great-grandfather, Rocco Valluzzo, founded McBR Management Co. to franchise the beloved fast-food chain throughout the Baton Rouge area. But when Michael’s father, John Valluzzo, split from the family business to form Valluzzo Companies in 2011—taking 31 McBR franchises with him, Michael and his brother, Nicholas, decided they wanted to join their father in his new venture, inspired by John’s strategic vision for the company.
“Our focus has always been on smart, contiguous growth—taking our time and finding the right opportunity that fits with our conservative growth model and is something we can handle operationally,” Valluzzo says. “My dad’s greatest skill is scaling our small business focus into a large business landscape.”
The company’s footprint—which has more than doubled to 78 existing locations in eight years—is growing largely through acquisitions. In the past year, it gained 29 locations, expanding its McDonald’s operations into Mississippi and Alabama by acquiring seven Jackson-area restaurants last October, another seven in northern Mississippi in January and 15 in the Birmingham area in August.
By the same token, the family business is also building new restaurants in some markets, including Baton Rouge, where a McDonald’s will be erected in front of Costco in the first quarter of next year. Valluzzo says he sees continued potential for growth within the Baton Rouge area.
“You would think that after 50 years you’d have plenty of market penetration,” says Valluzzo. “But growing in this city as this city has grown, it’s been remarkable to serve a larger customer base and capitalize on that rapid market expansion.”
All in all, growth remains Valluzzo’s top priority as he and his brother oversee operations for the company. Valluzzo measures growth through reinvestment in the company’s existing locations just as much as he does through acquisitions and new units.
By the end of 2020, the company will have remodeled all 78 of its restaurants to align with McDonald’s “Bigger, Bolder Vision 2020” plan, which pushes franchisees to offer delivery services, add electronic kiosks inside restaurants and improve the speed of drive-thru orders, among other design and operational changes that Valluzzo Companies will spend some $20 million to execute in Baton Rouge alone.
LIT Pizza: Firing up Louisiana
“We’re going into highly developed sites, high-traffic zones in
lifestyle centers anchored by Target, Whole Foods, other grocery
stores and those types of businesses.”
OZZIE FERNANDEZ, owner, LIT Pizza
Having always felt a calling to honor his Mexican ancestry through food but formally trained in Italian fare, Ozzie Fernandez took a roundabout path to propelling his culinary career in Baton Rouge, which began 18 years ago with the opening of Izzo’s Illegal Burrito. Now, Fernandez is accelerating an aggressive expansion plan for his second concept, LIT Pizza, which opened near LSU in 2016.
Plans to expand the fast-casual, build-your-own pizza concept from several Baton Rouge locations to other areas throughout the state picked up this summer, after a local group led by attorney Gordon McKernan gave Fernandez a “sizable, ongoing investment” to open more than 20 new LIT Pizzas across Louisiana over the coming years.
“We hope to surpass that,” says Fernandez, a Houston native. “We’re going into highly developed sites, high-traffic zones in lifestyle centers anchored by Target, Whole Foods, other grocery stores and those types of businesses.”
Aside from the generous investment, Fernandez says his 2018 purchase of a commissary—Central Kitchen—helped position the brand for growth. Within the facility, 27-full time employees mass-produce dough, sauce and other protein products for his restaurants, while refrigerated trucks deliver produce.
Planned locations have been announced so far for Denham Springs and Youngsville, a Lafayette suburb. In the near future, Fernandez is targeting various Louisiana cities along the I-10 and I-20 corridors, including New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Monroe, West Monroe and Bossier.
With no franchise locations (and no plans to begin franchising in the short-term), Fernandez says he’s aiming to establish “an-hour-away-from-us approach” when picking locations so he can maintain a solid level of control over each business’ operations.
As for going into other states?
“That’s not something on our front-burner because Louisiana is an underserved market in terms of this category,” says Fernandez. “We want to be first-to-market for a lot of these cities in Louisiana, but if an opportunity arises in Texas or Mississippi or beyond, we’ll certainly look at it.”
While arguably his fastest-growing concept, LIT Pizza isn’t the only one Fernandez is expanding. Early next year, he’s opening Modesto, a taqueria that will be located in the same LSU-area shopping center as the original LIT Pizza. Meanwhile, Izzo’s will continue a slow growth pattern throughout the state as Fernandez considers “clustering” some Izzo’s and LIT locations in the same shopping centers.
Jay Ducote: Broadcasting a brand
“It was definitely a disappointment when that didn’t get picked up,
but I still considered it a huge accomplishment.”
JAY DUCOTE, on his show ‘Deep Fried America’ not
being picked up by the Travel Channel
Unlike the other entrepreneurs, Jay Ducote isn’t tied to a business, per se; he’s tied to himself, and he’s working to grow his brand as a local food personality to national heights, from the ground up.
Ducote, who carved out his career in food after winning a tailgate cook-off in 2010, has evolved Bite and Booze LLC from a blog into a culinary media company and product line. In September, all Ducote brands and businesses were acquired by Guaranty Corporation, a key step toward Ducote’s ultimate goal of hosting his own food travel show.
He’s already competed in “Food Network Star” (finishing as runner-up), “Cutthroat Kitchen,” “Chopped,” and “Beat Bobby Flay,” having also appeared on Fox‘s “MasterChef.” He’s even filmed a half-hour pilot before, hosting a show called “Deep Fried America” that aired on the Travel Channel in 2016, but didn’t get picked up by the network.
“It was definitely a disappointment when that didn’t get picked up, but I still considered it a huge accomplishment,” Ducote says, adding he’s currently focused on growing his Baton Rouge brands, including Bite and Booze, Gov’t Taco and JD’s Product Line.
For now, his strategy involves packing his schedule with television appearances and radio spots to gain more inside (and outside) exposure. The acquisition will help with some of that: Ducote will increase his media presence on Guaranty’s 107.3 FM by hosting its drive-time talk show, “The Jay Ducote Show,” which attracts listeners driving home from work on weekday afternoons from 4-6 p.m.
Locally and, to some degree, nationally, Ducote describes his brand as that of a “big, friendly Southern personality,” which—despite admittedly being more of an introvert than he might appear on the silver screen—is a genuine persona that’s worked to his professional advantage thus far.
“They’re definitely looking for somebody to fill that southerner role, or the big, bearded male chef, as well as other types,” Ducote says. “We’ll see what comes down the line.”