Max Sheets Of Chick N Max: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restauranteur
Success is fleeting. What may start as a Hot Concept can lose its momentum for many reasons. Don’t read the press clippings. Focus on people.
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Max Sheets, founder and CEO of Chick N Max.
Max Sheets has spent three decades in the restaurant industry. He was with Smashburger when the footprint transformed from a handful to hundreds. He was at the floor of Ted’s Montana Grill when Ted Turner and George McKerrow pioneered the better-burger segment. His responsibilities took him across the country. And in those travels, Sheets saw things done well, and he saw the opposite. In 2017, he channeled that knowledge and started his own concept, Chick N Max.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restaurateur?
No stranger to the restaurant industry, I got my start as a teenager scraping cheese off pans in a Pizza Hut kitchen. In the early 2000s — after having already spent 23 years in real estate and development for such brands as Lone Star Steakhouse and Salon, Freddy’s Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, Smashburger and Ted’s Montana Grill — I began mulling over the idea of a franchise concept that would accommodate the ever growing movement towards read meat alternatives. I conceptualized Chick N Max in 2017, assembled a team of culinary professionals to perfect the menu, and opened my first restaurant in January 2018.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
Chicken! At Chick N Max, we offer a unique culinary experience with 10 unique flavors of chef-crafted sandwiches, made with almond wood smoked pulled chicken or crispy golden fried tenders. Examples include the Maple Bacon Sandwich, featuring pulled smoked chicken, chopped bacon, a drizzle of maple syrup, cheddar cheese, and mayonnaise on a potato bun; or the Sweet & Spicy Sandwich, which includes lightly breaded, crisp chicken tenders, fried jalapeño pepper strips, cucumber, tomato and sweet & spicy sauce on a brioche bun. In addition, we serve our signature almond wood smoked chicken in the form of wings, leg quarters, breast quarters, and half chicken.
As for what drew me to chicken? … The ever growing movement towards read meat alternatives. Whether or not there’s attrition with the phrase “chicken sandwich wars” or not, there’s zero evidence consumers are tiring of the product itself. According to ecommerce data company Edison Trends, overall spending on chicken sandwiches grew 420 percent between January 2019 and December 2020.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a restaurateur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
Lots of fun stories with guests and staff over the years. One of the funniest was a presentation with Ted’s Montana Grill. We had no stores and only an idea to present to a boardroom full of executives who made the decision of whether to let us be an anchor in a new development. Three of us on one side of the table and twelve on the other! Was hilarious! The takeaway was to present with confidence! It became the first Ted’s in the country and is still open today!!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
I started Chick N Max in 2018. The learning curve was steep! Chicken unlike beef is bought by the pound and sold by the piece, and no two chickens weigh the same! This made food cost a challenge. Not long after we redefined who we were as a brand (“Home of the Better Chicken Sandwich”) and got rolling, COVID hit. Talk about a curve ball!! We overcame all of this by listening to our guests and our people! We stayed nimble and adjusted by taking care of others at an elite level. We listened and we put our people first. They didn’t get laid off or furloughed. We discounted a box for $2 that people lined up for and took to others. We also fed 52 families in need every Wednesday evening and it made our people feel better as they were helping others!
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
Finding a unique flavor profile that resonates with the guest! It used to be spicy was the only choice. Today, consumers are very flavor aware and looking for dishes beyond regular and spicy they can not only enjoy, but also experiences they can share on social media.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
As much as I love our chicken, my “perfect” meal is fresh seafood I’ve just seen come off the boat, enjoyed in a small, outdoor setting overlooking the water. I highly recommend Tognazzini’s Dockside Too in Morro Bay, CA. The view is amazing and they have the best seafood out there.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My inspiration comes from conversations with George McKerrow, co-founder and CEO of Ted’s Montana Grill, and Chick N Max’s culinary director Chef Robert Kabakoff.
George’s history of success in both fine dining and casual restaurants is arguably unmatched. There’s a reason why he has been credited with “giving birth to an entire casual-dining segment” more than 30 years ago when he founded LongHorn Steakhouse. I regularly tum to George as a sounding board for concept innovation.
For food innovation, Robert is the MAN! He is the creator of our culinary experiences through our Legendary Sandwiches! He understands and melds ingredients into these medleys of flavor that excite our taste buds. Truly an incredible, innovative chef on so many levels.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We recently announced the launch of our franchise opportunity and plans to expand across the Central and Southeastern United States. With three corporate-owned restaurants already serving throngs of customers throughout Wichita, Kansas, we intend to double our footprint by the end of 2022 and open as many as five new restaurants each year thereafter. The growth will be primarily achieved through multi-unit franchising and initially target select markets throughout Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas and the Southeast United States.
What advice would you give to other restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
Try to find something that gives you real down time. It’s extremely hard to do when your focus is the success of your business and your constantly connected (e.g. cell service, hot spots, etc.). Honestly, I’m not very good at this myself, but I do force myself to find some time to let my body and brain rest. For me personally, being outdoors with friends on the water and fishing is the perfect recipe.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restaurateur” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Success is fleeting. What may start as a Hot Concept can lose its momentum for many reasons. Don’t read the press clippings. Focus on people.
- Understanding business dynamics in one segment does not always translate the same to another. Food costs for a burger chain are different than for a chicken chain. There are four quarter pounders in a pound of ground beef. A pound of chicken tenders can vary because each is a different weight. Buying by the pound and selling by the piece takes on a whole new dynamic!
- Growth has to be controlled and determined by your people not by others encouraging you to grow for growth’s sake. Don’t open a new unit unless you are property staffed with well-trained people who understand the brand and most importantly your culture!
- People make a concept. A concept is defined by not only the food, but by the people serving your guests. Focus on your people and growing the brand by and through them. Strive to develop and communicate the culture of what the brand represents through its food and the community it serves.
- Be nimble and don’t be afraid to pivot quickly in these changing times! Change comes faster now and in ways we can’t always predict. The pandemic reinforced this in so many ways. Watching our sales change from in the dining room to through the drive thru and with pick up, digital ordering and third party delivery (and outrageous fees). But through all of this maintain the focus on your people because they are the brand. We never laid anyone off or furloughed anyone or closed for even a shift. We remained nimble and made our focus serving our community and supporting others.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Any of our specialty sandwiches! Today, I would highly recommend our LTO Chipotle Chicken and Bacon Sandwich with either our tenders or our pulled chicken. Thanks again to Chef Robert!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would like to inspire people to understand that we are all in this together and to lend a hand to others whenever we can! To believe that everyone not only has human rights, but the right to live like a human. To understand we are a society of different people all coming together to live in this great country and to embrace and understand the “mutuality” of it. This can all start so simply by just smiling as we pass one another. Be positive and work together and help one another. (I can go on and on and on)
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!