Editor's note: This story has been updated after the second Hickory Bird announced its opening date in a Walmart in North Texas.
A new restaurant group wants to meet people where they are. Specifically, that's inside a Walmart Supercenter, beyond the crush of shopping carts on the left and before the big-box deals straight ahead.
Hickory Bird is a new Southern comfort restaurant opening exclusively inside Walmart stores. Forget about dining al fresco. It's dining al market-o.
Launching companies within existing Walmart stores is "a very intriguing proposition" for Steve Rich, president of Hickory Bird. He is a former senior vice president at California Pizza Kitchen.
"We see that customers are, across the board, looking for different experiences in how they eat, and where they eat, and when they eat," he says. His company's mission is to test new food-and-drink concepts specifically for the Walmart customer.
And Rich and his team in California have placed a bullseye on North Texas as the testing ground.
Why? "People are migrating to Texas in flocks," Rich says.
Plus, he says "people [in North Texas] appreciate good food, and they've been very supportive of very good brands that deliver on their promise on food and service." Of note, D-FW is home to the chain-restaurant headquarters of Pizza Hut, Pei Wei Asian Diner, Cicis Pizza, Taco Bueno, Brinker International (Chili's Grill & Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy) and more.
The first Hickory Bird is located in a Walmart in Bedford, on Highway 121. The second Hickory Bird opens May 18 in Fort Worth. Two more are expected to open in the North Texas suburbs, and the restaurant may also expand to the Carolinas.
Hickory Bird's big seller is chicken, though the menu also has some barbecue offerings like pulled pork and some Tex-Mex options like quesadillas.
That hallmark menu item is a marinated, dry-rubbed, smoked whole chicken — an eight-piece lunch or dinner that can feed a family for about $15 total. Hickory Bird also offers chicken tenders. And loaded fries. Perhaps those are selling points for Walmart customers missing the McDonald's that used to be in Hickory Bird's place.
Hickory Bird has minimalist farmhouse accents, which makes the space feel redone yet still simple. Customers order at the counter, and, like most fast-casual restaurants, food arrives quickly.
Hickory Bird in Bedford is located a few dozen feet from a new coffee shop inside Walmart called LiftOff Coffee and Tea. LiftOff is testing whether Walmart shoppers will stop for a latte on their way into the store, and the slick, new coffee shops have already launched in more than a half-dozen Walmarts — all in North Texas. LiftOff and Hickory Bird don't appear to look related, but both companies are owned by parent company United States Hospitality Group (USHG), which Rich explains has "special business relationships" with Walmart. Walmart acts as the landlord.
Rich doesn't have a number of Hickory Birds he wants to open in the next year or two. He says he is focused on learning from the first Hickory Bird, which opened in late 2018, and next on Fort Worth.
"If you asked Howard Schultz how many Starbucks he would have built, I don't think the answer would have been in the tens of thousands," Rich says. "I don't know where [Hickory Bird] ends, and, candidly, I don't want to know where it ends."
Original story posted Feb. 5, 2019, with an update on May 14, 2019.