Smalls Sliders Joins the Big Time

by Katie Lee

— Interview with Maria Rivera —

In its innovative small spaces, the young slider brand is going big places — with 200 modular “Cans” open or under development in 16 states.

The only thing “small” about Smalls Sliders is the unique space it inhabits. Utilizing a creative “Can” buildout, the expanding burger brand operates out of a 750-square-foot shipping container — keeping construction costs down and clearing the way for easy, efficient openings almost anywhere. Last year, Smalls Sliders began further positioning itself as a disruptor in the ‘big burger’ industry with a new brand refresh and, in May 2023, the reopening of its franchising program. Smalls’ CEO, Maria Rivera, reports that the focus for 2024 will be “all about preparing for explosive growth.” In fact, the brand plans to end the year having opened 40 Cans throughout eight new states. Retail & Restaurant Facility Business recently interviewed Rivera to learn more about Smalls’ big plans ahead. 

R&R: How many restaurants does Smalls Sliders operate today? What is your growth forecast for this year?

Maria Rivera, Smalls Sliders.

Maria Rivera: Smalls Sliders currently operates 13 active locations across Louisiana and Mississippi. We have a robust pipeline with over 200 Cans open or in various stages of development across 16 states. Having just reopened our doors to franchising in May 2023, we have been able to strike a unique chord with entrepreneurs, which has enabled us to drive such outstanding growth. Our expansion has primarily taken place across the Southeast so far, but we’ve recently expanded key areas of interest to states like Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and more.

R&R: Are you based in Atlanta?

Rivera: Yes, Smalls Sliders is based in Atlanta with plans to drop Cans throughout the state as early as this year. Atlanta is a wonderful city with a vibrant,  diverse community, and a strong food scene. While our heart is in Louisiana, we are excited to call Atlanta home.

R&R: Please describe the unique “Can” construction of Smalls Sliders. What are the advantages to using this type of modular buildout? It’s highly adaptable to drive-thru and walk-up windows, too, right? What went into the decision to build like this?

Rivera: At Smalls, we have a saying that “We don’t break ground, we drop Cans.” Other concepts utilize real estate formats that are generic and can be formatted into existing storefronts, such as an in-line or endcap location. One of the things that makes Smalls so unique is our Cans, which change the landscape of the community once we drop them in a neighborhood. Not only do we stand out for the bright colors and modern design, but we’re inherently eye-catching because we are the center of attention in every community, shopping center and neighborhood we’re situated in. That’s an incredibly attractive advantage for our operators. 

You also mentioned the drive-thru and walk-up windows. Those were pointed, conscious choices that we knew would shape our brand identity. Smalls Sliders was created in 2019, and even then, we saw a large shift in consumer habits that leaned toward off-premise dining. Our menu is intentionally simple, so we’re able to expedite the drive-thru process and leave our frequent sliders with a positive experience. And, even if they want to dine with us, there’s always the option to sit on our outdoor patios and utilize our walk-up window.

R&R: Tell me how you reimagined the Smalls Sliders brand essence and identity in 2023?

Rivera: Our brand refresh was a strategic move to help us elevate our identity and really position ourselves to be a category leader in the restaurant space. We reimagined our logo that highlights both our iconic slider and our Smorange™ color. While these components add value, a large portion of this reimagination had to do with how we define Smalls Sliders — who we are as a brand, what we stand for, and how we show up for our frequent sliders.

R&R: Smalls Sliders reopened its franchising program less than a year ago and was able to double its pipeline in the first 5 months. What’s your secret sauce to franchising success?

Rivera: There are so many components that go into the success we’ve driven with franchising. I’ll start with what Smalls Sliders was founded upon: a pursuit to perfect the cheeseburger slider. This approach has allowed for streamlined operations and a smaller footprint, which in turn has garnered a lot of attention in the industry. We know what we excel in, so we’re going to stick to that and drive the highest possible growth. Lastly, I think our concept is so appealing to operators because it’s feasible for established entrepreneurs. For those who already operate with other brands or even those who are just looking to expand their business portfolio, Smalls Sliders has proven processes and systems in place that can make those goals possible in a much shorter timeframe than what other brands provide.

R&R: What percentage of your units are franchised vs. corporately owned? Do you intend to maintain a similar ratio or grow more on the franchising side?

Rivera: Our system is mostly comprised of franchised Cans, with two active Company Cans. That’s not to say we’ll never have more company-owned locations. Given how quickly we’ve been growing, we intend to continue the same momentum.

R&R: Tell me a little about the history of the company, where the idea came from, how it has shaken up the industry in such a short time, and why 2024 promises to be a milestone year.

Rivera: Smalls Sliders is the brainchild of our founder, Brandon Landry. Brandon, already incredibly successful in the restaurant industry, had a vision to create a brand dedicated to perfecting the cheeseburger slider. The brand took off the moment it was created. The health of our business is tremendous and far exceeds our initial business model. We are actually a full year ahead of plan. We have gone from “I’ve heard about Smalls” to “I know Smalls” to “I want Smalls” in less than 9 months.  We appear to have evolved in the eyes of our frequent sliders, and they are not wrong. In the last 12 months, we have gone from this one-off slider concept garnering awareness and attention to, “Wait, this brand is actually doing something different.”

2024 is all about preparing for our explosive growth. With over 200 Cans opened or under development, we have plans to end the year having opened 40 Cans throughout eight new state entries.

You’ll hear me say this a lot throughout 2024: Smalls Sliders is reimagining what our journey looks like this year from our learnings in 2023 — that includes physical innovation, operations and community engagement.

R&R: What was it like to found a restaurant company in 2019, just before the pandemic hit? How did you weather that period?

Rivera: The pandemic was a challenging time across the board, there’s no mistaking that. We are always sympathetic to those who struggled during that time because we’ve all seen how rapidly things can change. Smalls Sliders was very fortunate in that our operations were seamlessly prepared to handle a pandemic. A vast majority of our traffic is a result of our efficient drive-thru setup, which was able to continue thriving even amidst the pandemic.

R&R: Does Smalls Sliders plan any non-traditional openings in airports, stadiums, colleges?

Rivera: Our focus is currently on dropping Cans throughout the country where the demand is high. Our first-ever Can is located across the street from LSU [Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge], and has seen great success with that demographic. We are always looking to expand our footprint.

R&R: Plans to expand globally?

Rivera: We are building a brand that will be globally recognized and loved, and are always exploring how to bring Smalls Sliders to more consumers. 

R&R: How did retired NFL quarterback Drew Brees, who played most of his 20-year career with the New Orleans Saints, get involved?

Rivera: Drew has had a hand in the QSR space for quite some time, so he’s developed a keen eye for disruptive concepts that can scale. With Smalls Sliders, he started as an investor and later decided to become a franchisee with us. His first Can recently opened in Metairie [Louisiana], and the grand opening was truly a resounding success with the local community. It’s wonderful to have Drew be a part of the Smalls Squad because not only is he passionate about what we are building, but he’s also a tremendous businessperson and partner who understands the importance of building a brand that stands for something other than transactional.

R&R: Moving from a very recognizable face of your brand to those who maintain your locations behind the scenes, do you use local or national vendors?

Rivera: As we grow rapidly, we rely on both local and national vendors. We are building a national brand, so the mix is important.

R&R: What do you enjoy most about your job day to day?

Rivera: There are so many things I could say here, but the one that tops anything else is the amazing team we’ve built. Every individual on our team takes the work we do seriously because we know we are enacting real, tangible change in the restaurant industry. As it stands, our team is comprised of 48% women, 30% people of color and 17% LGBTQIA+, all of whom span over four generations. I love being able to work across such a talented and diverse set of professionals, knowing that each person’s input and expertise is what’s driven us to succeed on such a high level.    

R&R: What goals have you set for your team, short term and long term? Do you still plan to eclipse more than 300 units under development very soon?

Rivera: Our long term goal has remained consistent since our inception: We want to be a globally recognized household name. Given our growth, I’m confident that this goal will be realized much sooner than some might have initially thought. In the short term, our goal is to continue supporting our franchisees as they gear up to open new locations across the country. We’ve just recently made the shift from primarily targeting the southeastern and Midwest states to new territories, so I expect that in the coming months, you’ll see a spike in our growth in entirely new markets as more and more people learn who Smalls Sliders is and what we’re all about.

— This article originally published as the cover story of the April 2024 issue of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business magazine. To have your retailer or restaurant company profiled, please contact the editor, Katie Lee, at [email protected].

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