In 2001, Jeff Shawl, inspired by the idea of starting his own business, approached his father, Don, about restaurant concepts that looked promising.
Raised in Bristol, Tennessee, Shawl earned his accounting degree in 1992 and shortly after, began his career in Entrepreneurial Services for Ernst and Young in the Washington D.C. area. Over the next 10 years, Shawl served as a consultant and auditor, earned an MBA from the University of Tennessee, and worked in various project management roles at Philip Morris USA and iXL in Richmond, Virginia. It was there that he was first introduced to McAlister’s Deli, which had opened near his iXL office.
When Shawl consulted his father—who has experience owning and operating 12 Arby’s restaurants in the area—about concepts to invest in, the two of them partnered up with Chris Smith, a longtime friend, to embark on a road trip throughout the Southeast to research restaurants. That’s when they landed in Alpharetta, Georgia to visit McAlister’s Deli.
“Based on my father’s deep industry experience, we had a list of several possibilities. We traveled from corporate headquarters to corporate headquarters throughout the region, waiting for that perfect ‘a-ha’ moment,” Shawl said. “After plenty of research and analysis, we decided that McAlister’s Deli was the perfect concept. This was a restaurant that not only had incredible brand awareness throughout the South, but it also provided the kind of hospitality, originality and youthful energy that the three of us were seeking.”
A year later, the three business partners founded Peak Restaurants LLC with the goal to build a lasting organization that provided something more than expected to its guests, its community and its team members. Together, they opened their first McAlister’s Deli in the Turkey Creek development in Knoxville, Tennessee. Shawl and Smith ran the store primarily themselves to learn the “ins and outs” of the business.
“We wanted to submerge ourselves in the business and know each aspect of the company—from the operations side to the financial side. And the only way to do that was to run the store ourselves,” Shawl said. “We weren’t afraid to get our hands dirty.”
Within 20 months, both Shawl and Smith felt so confident in the brand they had invested in that they decided to open two more Knoxville locations. The group expanded into the TriCities area in 2005, opening a Kingsport, Tennessee location. The opening week in Kingsport was, up until that time, the biggest opening sales week in the history of McAlister’s Deli.
But Shawl and his group aren’t ones to rest on their laurels—in fact, they identified even more opportunities for continued growth.
Today, Peak Restaurants owns and operates a total of 11 restaurants throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. They employ more than 300 people, many of which have been with the company for more than a decade. In 2015, Peak Restaurants was named Franchisee of the Year at the National FOCUS Brands Convention. And most recently, the company opened a location in Blacksburg, Virginia in September 2016.
Shawl credits the brand’s extensive support system for helping Peak Restaurants go from first-time restaurant owners to record-breaking multi-unit franchisees—an impressive feat that’s not always easy.
“Going from one to two units was huge for us, especially when you’re used to being there six days a week. But with the help of McAlister’s support team, we learned how to put the right team and systems in place to help us sustainably grow to 11 units and beyond. Without McAlister’s guidance, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Shawl said.
With more than 380 restaurants in 28 states, multi-unit franchisees like Shawl are helping to take McAlister's from a ubiquitous Southern favorite to nationwide brand. With an investment that ranges from $579,000 to $1,475,500, the brand is targeting areas like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, New York and Florida for continued growth. According to Jeff Sturgis, the vice president of franchise development, with the help of its growing network of multi-unit franchisees, McAlister’s is aiming to open 35 additional restaurants this year.
“It’s an exciting time for McAlister’s with expansion into new territories,” Sturgis said. “Every one of our franchisees are incredibly supportive of the brand. We have a very unique culture that runs all the way from our corporate headquarters and is delivered by our franchisees at the unit level. They’re passionate protectors of the brand and what we stand for—and that really is the key to strong and sustainable growth in the years ahead.”