Thinking of Buying a Fast-Casual Franchise? Read this report first.

Ones to Watch | By Jody Shee

Otter’s Chicken Tenders
Grilled chicken tenders from Otter's.

What college student wouldn’t love to have a great chicken joint where they can hang out, drink a few, and watch sports on a huge television screen, all for an affordable price? For two brothers and a couple of their buddies, who had all attended colleges with chicken concepts nearby, the answer to this question was a no-brainer, yet they realized such an establishment was missing from their local Nashville college scene.

“Everyone loves chicken. We felt we could start a concept that was better than those [at our colleges],” says Stuart Ottinger, co-founder of Otter’s Chicken Tenders.

And so the dream became reality, leading to the first Otter’s, a fast-casual, family friendly sports bar that opened in 2003. Stuart Ottinger and his brother, Talbott, along with two friends, Steve Logan and Charlie Fitzgerald, are the founders of the concept, which carries the slogan “101 ways to eat chicken and counting.” The name Otter’s was inspired by a character in the movie “Animal House” and is a play off the Ottinger’s last name.

“Out of the four partners, we had a combined experience of about six months in the restaurant business,” Ottinger says. “That consisted of waiting and busing tables.” Still, today there are four company-owned Otter’s units and one franchised location, with four additional franchises sold.

The restaurant idea is simple. Otter’s majors in chicken tenders—fried, grilled, or buffalo-style—served in wraps, sandwiches, quesadillas, and salads with a choice of six dipping sauces. Rather than buy the common 1.5-ounce tenders, Otter’s uses 2- to 3-ounce fresh, never-frozen tenders and prepares them to order, hand-breading them in a flavorful, proprietary breading mix. Each store receives chicken deliveries three times a week, two to three days from the time the chicken left the farm.

One of the surprising menu standouts is Ottinger’s mother’s homemade chicken-salad recipe. It’s a sweet, chunky, mayonnaise-based salad featuring dried cranberries and toasted almonds that derives its sweetness from honey. It started as a Friday special but became so popular the salad joined the regular menu lineup and is also sold in 12-ounce containers for customers to take home.

Otter's Chicken Tenders

CO-FOUNDERS: Stuart and Talbott Ottinger,
Steve Logan, and Charlie Fitzgerald

HQ: Nashville, Tennessee

YEAR STARTED: 2003

ANNUAL SALES: $4 million

TOTAL UNITS: 5

FRANCHISE UNITS: 1

WEB SITE: www.otterschicken.com

Fried pickles are another menu hit. Using its special breading, the restaurant coats dill pickle chips, fries them, and serves them with a choice of sauce. Two of the sauce options are made fresh in-house as signature sauces: honey mustard and Otter’s, which is a tangy Creole sauce.

“The fried pickles go well with a nice cold beer and watching sports,” Ottinger says. After all, it is a sports-bar concept, complete with multiple high-definition televisions and a 106-inch projector screen.

Originally, the target customer was the 18-to-35-year-old market. “Now it’s 4-year-olds to grandmas and grandpas,” Ottinger says. “It just happened.” The concept started attracting young families with kids thanks to its check averages from $7.50 to $8.

The goal for each of the 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot units is to be located near a university with good residential surroundings and within three to five miles of a commercial area to draw business lunch crowds. The concept has made a splash in Nashville, having been voted Best Lunch Spot, Best Late Night Dining, and Best Cheap Eats by City-search.com.

Despite the company’s success, it’s constantly staying on top of the hottest foodservice trends. With the rise of slider fame, Otter’s added chicken sliders to the appetizer menu, and the owners also have an eye for energy efficiency. “We use compact fluorescent bulbs, our countertops are quartz, which is considered green, and our walls are foam insulated,” Ottinger says.

Looking to the future, Ottinger says the team plans to expand in a big way. “In the next five years, we’d like to have 15 to 20 units in southern Louisiana to mid-Tennessee and surrounding states,” he says. “In 10 years, we hope to have over 50 locations.”

The franchise fee is $30,000 with 5 percent royalty. Franchisees go through an eight-week training program where the owner and four employees come to one of the units for classroom and on-the-job training, and then management goes to the franchisee’s location to help train employees and get the operation up and running.

Ottinger says that any potential Otter’s Chicken Tenders employee better come prepared to have fun. “We want it to be a place where workers come to enjoy work,” he says. “We don’t want them to dread coming to work. We have music playing throughout the restaurant at all times. It keeps employees upbeat.”