Although the unique name is unfamiliar to those living outside of Columbia, S.C., to its many loyal customers "Lizard's Thicket" is synonymous with down-home Southern cooking.
Throughout the years, the operation grew, expanding into sites where other restaurants had failed. "This was a big reason for our success. Startup costs were much less because we were converting our new locations," says Bobby Williams, the restaurant's CEO and one of the founders' sons. Four of his seven siblings are also active in the business.
Today, the chain has been cited as an up-and-comer in the family-dining segment by Chicago-based research firm Technomic. With 14 privately owned Lizard's Thicket locations, 2009 sales totaled more than $25 million, an increase of 6.5 percent from the year prior.
"The menu hasn't changed a great deal in the 30 years we've been in business," Williams says. "We serve food that Southerners grew up eating."
FE&S spoke with Bobby Williams to learn more about Lizard's Thicket and how it became a standout among the country's many family-dining operations.
FE&S: What are the day-to-day issues faced by family-dining operations?
BW: The economy is bad right now, but it is healthcare that scares us to death. From what we can figure out, it will take our profit from the past few years to pay for health care, and we will have to raise prices to make it work. Also, food prices, such as beef and pork, are creeping up.
FE&S: How have you adjusted your operations to remain profitable during this challenging economic period?
BW: We cannot raise prices; it would be the wrong thing to do. To address increased costs, we've had to become more efficient in our operations. As we grew, we weren't as observant in watching the small things, which add up. We went back to the basics to increase efficiency in terms of cutting waste, ordering food and saving electricity. Years ago, we weren't dealing with the same utility costs as we are today, so we are looking to utilize more energy-efficient equipment.
BW: What makes family dining unique is that our customers take care of our business for us. Many eat with us four to five times a week. They play a big part in our success, because they will let us know if something isn't right. We listen to their feedback and implement it into the business. Our customers genuinely want us to be successful. Also, we've always been able to provide a good value, which has helped us build our credibility.
FE&S: Please describe your menu.
BW: With our Southern location, fried chicken is still our top seller. We have recently had a big push on baked chicken, which also is popular. Other menu items that sell well are fried flounder and fried catfish.
FE&S: How have the menu items evolved in recent years?
BW: In our region, fried food is a staple, but we're currently looking to expand the menu to offer more grilled items. It is up to customers if they want the added calories of fried food. We are using more fresh vegetables than ever before. We also concentrate on locally sourced food. There has been a big emphasis on this trend recently, but we've been sourcing local products for 20 years.
FE&S: Describe your back-of-the-house operations.
BW: In our newer prototype locations, 50 percent to 55 percent of the restaurant is the kitchen, because we still cook everything from scratch. In all of our locations, the back of the house is typically larger than our dining rooms. We've made better use of space and increased efficiency in terms of labor and energy at our new sites.
FE&S: How does the foodservice equipmentsupport the menu?
BW: Fryers are a big part of our operation. We also work off of steam tables, which are built custom for us. Most offer between eight and 10 openings to accommodate our 30 vegetable offerings. We've recently incorporated new holding equipment into our kitchens. These units hold fried product for up to 45 minutes at proper temperatures, without compromising the food quality.
FE&S: When buying equipment, what attributes are key for the family-dining segment?
BW: Over the years, we have tested many units in order to improve our equipment. We've upgraded many items in older locations, having to make power modifications in the building. We don't use a lot of specialty equipment. Basically, units have to be more efficient. For example, refrigeration has to maintain temperatures, since doors are frequently opened. We have our own equipment-service department, which carries parts for all of our units. For this reason, we try to be uniform with our equipment packages in all of our locations.
FE&S: What equipment innovations have had the biggest impact on the family-dining segment?
BW: Unlike other foodservice operations, we don't use steamers or braising pans. We are still cooking pots on top of stoves. For us, the new hot holding cabinet has been invaluable to the back of the house.
FE&S: Are there any aspects of your business that have changed or will change?
BW: We are always looking for new components to incorporate into our operation. We are unique in that we have had drive-thru window service at 11 locations for the last 20 years. With today's competition, this seems to be more important now. At least 35 percent of our business is at the drive-thrus, and service is just as fast as quick-service restaurants. All of our menu items are available at the window. Because we work off of a steam table, it allows us to offer quicker service and accommodate drive-up customers.
FE&S: What are your goals for this year?
BW: In a city of 400,000 people, we have 14 restaurants. We are looking to open another site outside our current market. We want to expand our operation but don't want to lose control. Consequently, we are looking at different ways to accomplish this and find the right vehicle. My goal is to open at least one more location outside Columbia in the near future.
FE&S: What do you predict for the future of this segment?