With more than 180 restaurants in 17 states, and one or two new locations opening each week, it’s safe to say Chicken Salad Chick is no longer just an Auburn hometown favorite. It has become a nationwide sensation, well on the way to reaching the company’s goal of being America’s favorite place for chicken salad.
Georgia native Stacy Brown, a 1999 communication graduate, co-founded Chicken Salad Chick in Auburn in 2008 with her late business partner, Kevin Brown. Although he would later become her husband, in the beginning Kevin played the role of analytic counterpoint to her creative focus and drive. She credits their opposite perspectives, talents and passions with their early success. But there were also countless setbacks and failures — and she wouldn’t trade a single one of them.
“I know this sounds crazy, but I have to say that every painstaking step we took was so important for the development of our company. As challenging as things were, I would not want to do anything differently,” Brown said. “Those early closed doors, failures and missteps absolutely shaped what came to be. We had no idea what we were doing, and I really think the greatest part of the adventure was found in that process of learning everything for ourselves. What we lacked in experience and capital we made up for in dreams, drive and a will to succeed.”
During the early days of making chicken salad in her kitchen and selling it door-to-door and then the setback of having her home-based enterprise shut down by the health department, the newly divorced mother of three found her motivation in a desire to stay home with her children. Twelve years later, Brown is recognized as a model of entrepreneurship and Chicken Salad Chick is successful beyond her wildest imagination.
The Chicken Salad Chick Incubator
Today, Brown’s motivation is a bit different, steeped in a desire to help others realize their entrepreneurial dreams. That philosophy is woven into every area of her professional life — from training employees to developing new business ventures and speaking to audiences of would-be entrepreneurs around the nation, as well as to Auburn students in communications and franchising classes.
But nowhere is her vision more evident than in her recent gift to support the new Tony and Libba Rane Culinary Science Center. Slated to open in 2022, the Rane Center will provide immersive educational opportunities for hospitality management students in the College of Human Sciences, as well as extraordinary guest experiences for the community.
One of the most unique features of the center is the Hey Day Market, an innovative addition to Auburn’s culinary scene, featuring a food hall for established restaurant concepts and two incubator spaces. These incubators will be hands-on learning spaces where new hospitality management graduates can implement their entrepreneurial business plans, learning how to run a food business with the help they need to test their ideas. Logistical support from commercial kitchens and restaurant space, as well as marketing, safety guidance and oversight from trained faculty will give participants the resources they need to succeed as they develop their business concepts — resources many entrepreneurs like Brown didn’t have as they painstakingly developed their own businesses.
Thanks to Brown’s generosity, one of those spaces will be the Chicken Salad Chick Incubator.
“Many restaurants fail because people take what they think is a good idea and pour every penny they have or can borrow into it. Making a huge investment in what is basically a gut instinct, with no measured feedback, is not a smart business decision,” she said. “We were forced to do that in the beginning because there was no way to test ideas back then, which is why I was cooking from home. But with these incubator spaces, Auburn graduates can safely and legally test their ideas, get feedback and determine what they need to change. It’s just a wonderful opportunity to help develop real businesses and I’m thrilled to be part of it.”
As an alumna, parent of an Auburn student and a donor, Brown’s love for Auburn runs deep. It’s not just about Auburn tradition, although she loves to host a gameday party. For her, it’s always about connection.
“I believe we have something so special at Auburn. In all of my travels, I have not seen or felt it anywhere else,” Brown said. “I believe this unique family feeling we have stems from the Auburn Creed. It’s extremely inspirational and bonding for all the people that have put in the hard work to become an Auburn graduate. So, to be an alumna and to contribute to the community that helped me experience some professional success is an honor.”
The essential ingredients
It’s no surprise that two of the most influential people in her professional life are also proud members of the Auburn Family. Brown describes Earlon ’68 and Betty McWhorter, who partnered with her as she launched the Chicken Salad Chick brand nationally, as business partners, mentors, friends and so much more.
“They are such wonderful philanthropists to Auburn and are just the picture of giving and doing things for the right reasons. They have been an example to me of bringing your faith, family and core values into all you do.”
Her entrepreneurial journey has taught Brown to know her strengths and weaknesses — and to be ok with them. The mantra “develop your passion” has guided her in the years since she graduated from Auburn.
“It’s not a simple thing — finding your passion,” she said. “Chicken salad was never my passion. I just knew I wanted to create experiences and serve others. I have been able to do that through Chicken Salad Chick. Chicken salad is just the conduit.”
Brown is committed to that concept. “I think people may not understand that when they look at their careers. They might think, ‘How can I be passionate about selling a product or service?” she added. “I would challenge them to look deeper. It’s not about the product or position, it’s about what motivates you. That’s the key to finding your passion.”