Franchise Players: How I Went From Fine Dining to Fast Casual

Franchise Players: How I Went From Fine Dining to Fast Casual
Image credit: David Blackburn
David Blackburn

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Franchise Players is Entrepreneur’s Q&A interview column that puts the spotlight on franchisees. If you're a franchisee with advice and tips to share, email

David Blackburn was a customer at McAlister's Deli before he thought of being a franchisee. In fact, prior to becoming a franchisee, he was involved in an entirely different type of restaurant business: fine dining. Owning a small, upscale Italian restaurant, Blackburn learned lessons in service and hospitality which would come in handy when he became the franchisee of 23 McAlister's Deli locations almost three years ago. Here's what he's learned in the transition from fine dining to fast casual franchising.

Name: David R. Blackburn

Franchise owned (location): I own 23 McAlister’s Deli locations across Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri under the franchise group name Southern Rock Restaurants, LLC., based in Franklin, Tenn.

How long have you owned the franchise?

I became a McAlister’s franchisee in October 2011.

Why franchising?

I was drawn to franchising because it can offer more security with proven concepts and cash flows, in addition to a support system. In a weak economy, this is even more appealing.

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What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?

Prior to becoming a McAlister’s franchisee, I owned a small, upscale Italian concept for several years. Prior to that, I was regional vice president of operations and vice president of business development of O’Charley’s Restaurants, Inc. My experience in fine dining has allowed me to bring a higher level of service and hospitality to our restaurants not typically found in fast casual.

Why did you choose this particular franchise?

I had been interested for five or six years in how quickly fast casual was growing and really believed it was the future. When the economy faltered, fine dining was hit hard, but there was more stability in fast casual. I had known McAlister’s for a decade as a customer before I decided to become a franchisee.

McAlister’s had a strong reputation in the geographical area I was interested in and, nationwide, was performing well and had aggressive growth plans. Additionally, McAlister’s has set itself apart from our fast casual competitors through our expanded menu, as well as table service and emphasis on guest engagement.

How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?

I spent approximately $625,000 to purchase the initial 23 locations in 2011.

Where did you get most of your advice/do most of your research?

I have many friends and associates on my personal “advisory council.” These folks have always steered me and offered help when need be.

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What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?

The most unexpected challenge was all the steps that had to be taken and the number of people involved to purchase the initial group of 23 existing restaurants when I first became a franchisee. It’s different than developing your own locations from the ground up. But I had great support from both my “advisory council” and McAlister’s.

What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?

Do your research and, above all else make, sure your skills and experience are a great fit.  You must be able to bring something to the table that would enhance the value. I recommend McAlister’s to those interested in fast casual, specifically. The brand continues to be recognized as a leader in the industry and same-store sales are up quarter after quarter. There are no signs that momentum will stop as CEO Frank Paci continues to strengthen the brand.

What’s next for you and your business?

Over the next few years, I will continue to grow Southern Rock Restaurants by purchasing existing locations from other franchisees, as well as developing some new locations from the ground up.

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