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SUNDAY, JUNE 26, 2005
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Backyard BBQ expands
Whitt's has franchise interest from as far away as Wyoming

By Jay Wilson
DAILY Business Writer

jwilson@decaturdaily.com 340-2440

The family never dreamed its barbecue would leave the back yard, but franchises have attracted wanna-be Whitt's Barbecue owners from as far as Wyoming.

This Athens family business will soon number 31 family and franchise locations since its start in a building at the end of a dirt road.
DAILY Photos by John Godbey
This Athens family business will soon number 31 family and franchise locations since its start in a building at the end of a dirt road.
Floyd and Laura Whitt started their barbecue joint in 1966 almost by accident. But from that point the family built a chain of drive-through restaurants that will soon be 31 strong.

Today sales are about $12 million annually for family-run and franchise stores.

"Mama was really responsible for the business," said Mark Whitt. "She tried selling Avon, she tried selling socks and then she decided we'd just sell barbecue, and it took off."

One of four children, Mark Whitt said his family grew the business through trial and error. Other siblings involved in the business are Joe Whitt and Bonnie Pepper. Their brother Jack Whitt died last month.

The family succeeded by working hard and sticking to their original cooking method, even though it is more difficult, said Mark Whitt.

They require their franchisees to do the same. Franchising is the latest ingredient in Whitt's success recipe.

In the beginning

Floyd Whitt, a Tennessee Valley bricklayer, designed and built barbecue pits as a hobby, experimenting with sauces.

He would slowly cook meats over hickory coals using his own pit design. The smell of hickory smoke wafting through the air as it swirled around chicken, pork, turkey and beef was more than the neighbors could take.

Mark Whitt said people would stop by, asking for a taste. His parents eventually started selling barbecue to pay for their four children to attend college.

This was their first barbecue joint.

Drive-through claim

"We broke every rule there was at that first location," Mark Whitt said.

It was at the end of a dirt road outside Athens.

"There was no location, location, location," he said, laughing.

Mark Whitt said his family had no business expertise, but they could cook, and that attracted customers.

He said his father built the first-ever restaurant drive-through window.

"If we're not the first food establishment to have a drive-up..." Whitt said, challenging someone to find an earlier drive-through.

Wendy's is credited for the first drive-through, according to Web sites www.correllconcepts .com and www .usefultrivia.com.

The useful trivia site reports that Wendy's introduced the drive-through in November 1970.

Whitt said his dad found a bank drive-through window and installed it in Whitt's No. 1 in Athens about four years earlier than Wendy's.

No frantic franchising

Whitt said his brother Jack Whitt introduced the franchise idea. The family was skeptical.

At the time, they owned a second location in Ardmore, and Mark Whitt had opened a third location, his first, at Spring Avenue in Decatur. His second Decatur location is on Sixth Avenue.

"I was 24 when I opened up," the first one, he said.

The family talked over the franchise concept, and Jack Whitt wore them down. In 1978, they franchised their first location.

"We franchised the one in Hartselle, and it just sort of mushroomed from there," Mark Whitt said.

Consistency

Consistency is the key to operating a successful food franchise, according to Mark Whitt. He said they teach a franchisee the cooking method perfected by his father, Floyd Whitt.

"Daddy's pit design is important too," he said.

Every Whitt's owner trains with a family member at either a Decatur or an Athens location, learning to make hickory coals and cook meats for 24 hours to slowly smoke the flavor into the food.

"The thing that separates us from everyone else is the fact we cook the old-fashioned way," said Mark Whitt.

He said everything must be done the same at each location with no exceptions. Someone eating a turkey sandwich in Athens can expect, and receive, the same sandwich in Nashville with subtle differences.

On several occasions, franchise owners tried it their way. Mark Whitt said they usually take short cuts on the meat so they can leave sooner. Whitt's takes away their franchise.

Nashville stars

"Cooking is one thing, but franchising is a whole different animal," Mark Whitt said.

He said he and his siblings learned to choose business partners carefully. He said they've lost some locations, but most have been successful.

One success story is Bill Dean's franchise in the Nashville area. Steve Dunlap, one of Dean's partners and sons-in-law, joined Dean in 1979.

Dean grew up eating Whitt's barbecue, Dunlap said.

"My father-in-law bought the franchise," Dunlap said. "He was a process engineer in Nashville but used to live near Athens, and he convinced Mr. Whitt (Floyd) to try a franchise here."

Dean now owns eight locations in the Nashville area. Instead of stopping there, though, he took Whitt's to a new level. He sub-franchised, allowing what will soon be 14 owners to operate a Whitt's under him.

The Whitts get a percentage of the sales from Dean and from each of his franchises.

"It's really a home run for both parties," Mark Whitt said, of the franchise concept.

Dunlap said Whitt's is 100 percent owner operated, requiring dedication and commitment. He said Dean's family has never opened a restaurant that didn't work.

The "Nashville Scene" named Whitt's the best of Nashville barbecue every year since the magazine started its contest in 1988. Dunlap said his group is focusing on growth through franchising and relocating some of the Nashville sites.

Mark Whitt is opening a site in the East Lawrence area of Lawrence County in August, and he said Dean is opening in Snellville, Ga., not long after that.

This will bring Whitt's to 31 locations, including one in Bowling Green, Ky. Mark Whitt said he received an inquiry from a gentleman in Jackson Hole, Wyo., who is interested in opening a franchise there.

"I don't know if I want to go that far," he said.

Mark Whitt said franchising is a definite for the future.

"If this Snellville location works out, I think we could probably double our size in the next 10 years," he said.

Jack Whitt was 56-years-old when he died last month, and this had a specific impact on Mark Whitt.

The brothers shared a genetic disorder called Alpha One.

"Jack had a double lung transplant at one point," Mark Whitt said. "I had a liver transplant two years ago that saved my life. The doctor told us to go back to work and act like nothing happened . . . to stay focused on some goal."

Mark Whitt said his goal is to grow the business for his family's next generation.

On the Net

www.franchise.org

Franchise facts

The International Franchise Association, established in 1960, works to "safeguard the business environment for franchising worldwide."

Recently the organization conducted an economic impact study that revealed the following about local franchises:

  • Fourth and Fifth Congressional Districts have an average 2,372 franchises.
  • These franchises employ about 25,357 workers.
  • The payroll for these franchises is about $440 million.
  • Franchise output for the area is about $1.3 billion.

    Indirectly, local franchises impact other businesses, according to the IFA and its recent impact study. In the congressional districts, the indirect impact, or the amount of money created because of franchises:

  • More than 32,000 people are employed.
  • Employees of various non-franchise companies earn about $605 million collectively.
  • Non-franchise companies contribute about $1.85 billion.

    Source: International Franchise Association

    Jay Wilson

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