Kempner: Not Amazon; another big ‘A’ bets on bringing Atlanta HQ jobs

When locals dream of recruiting hot employers to Atlanta, hearts flutter over landing cutting-edge tech companies such as Amazon or luxury global brands, like when Mercedes-Benz’s chose Sandy Springs for its North American headquarters.

But it’s time to appreciate things at a more gut level. Such as a chicken sandwich combo, a pecan waffle or a basket of wings.

Metro Atlanta has a surprising bounty of headquarters for big restaurant companies, particularly those peddling relatively fast and inexpensive meals. Soon, we might have even more.

The primary investor in Arby’s (“We have the meats”) is launching a new multibillion-dollar bet on our bellies, one that if it works out could add more executive jobs in Atlanta with a range of chains not already here. Or so I’m told by Arby’s CEO Paul Brown.

With the backing of Atlanta-based majority owner Roark Capital, Brown will be at the helm of a new multibrand restaurant company with a hopeful name: Inspire Brands. It will include Arby’s as well as the company it just completed purchase of for $2.9 billion: Minneapolis-based Buffalo Wild Wings.

That move alone will add “more than dozens” of corporate jobs in Atlanta through a combination of new positions and others brought down from Minnesota, Brown said.

But the bigger idea for Inspire Brands is to acquire more restaurant chains, from fast food to casual dining, each with systemwide annual sales of $1 billion to $4.5 billion, according to Brown. (That would include corporate-owned stores as well as franchisees’ restaurants.)

He’s already signed a lease for new headquarters space in Sandy Springs at 3 Glenlake Parkway, a former HQ of Newell Rubbermaid. The building is essentially across the street from where the new Mercedes-Benz HQ will be.

Restaurant capital of the country

The anticipated acquisitions should take place over the next several years, Brown said. “It continues to solidify Atlanta as the restaurant capital of the country.”

Titles like that are fun.

But depending on how you parse the numbers, the Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles metro areas host more HQs of the nation’s top 500 restaurant chains, according to Technomic senior analyst Charles Winship.

Still, Atlanta has a big enough concentration to crow about, if we want to.

We might even deserve a new tag line, with props to Arby’s.

“Atlanta — We Have The Eats.”

The Arby’s/Buffalo Wild Wings combination alone includes more than 1,700 corporate-owned restaurants, another 2,900 or so franchisee outlets and over 150,000 employees between them across the nation and in several other countries.

Different cache

About 375 of employees already work out of the existing Arby’s headquarters near the border of Fulton and DeKalb counties.

Of course, it’s no Amazon, which has sparked hopes for massive spinoff potential if it picks Atlanta for its second headquarters and 50,000 high-paying jobs.

A fast-food company doesn’t have the same cache as a luxury car brand, said Mark Sweeney, a Greenville, SC-based site consultant for companies that have ranged from Nissan to Hertz. “Bottom line, however, is headquarters jobs are headquarters jobs.”

They need IT folks, lawyers, accountants, marketing people and experienced executives. Where do you fish for such people? Where the fish are. Big companies tend to congregate in the same cities, said Sweeney, a principle in the firm McCallum Sweeney Consulting.

In fact, the more restaurant headquarters Atlanta gets, the more likely it is to get still more, he said.

HQs have doubled

Twenty years ago we had six true restaurant chains among the nation’s top 100. Now, we have about twice as many, if I counted right.

Still, Sweeney was surprised when I recited just a partial list of restaurants based here: Chick-fil-A, Zaxby’s (in Athens), Waffle House, Krystal, Church’s Chicken, Hooters, Arby’s, Schlotzky’s, Popeyes, Moe’s Southwest Grill … you get the picture.

Some of those, like Waffle House, Chick-fil-A and Zaxby’s are in Georgia because that’s where their founders happened to live. Others, were moved here: Schlotzky’s (Austin, Texas), Krystal (Chattanooga) and Hooters (Clearwater, Fla.).

The folks at the Georgia Restaurant Association cite local draws, from the low cost of living to a business-friendly environment. At the top of their list, though, they included Atlanta as a hub for flights and highways. That’s got to help when you need to quickly visit restaurants scattered all over the region or nation.

It also helps that some big restaurant investors are based here, including Roark, which controls not only a major stake in Arby’s but also a menagerie of other concepts, from Focus Brands’ Moe’s, Carvel, Cinnabon, Schlotzky’s and McAlister’s Deli to chains elsewhere, such as Hardee’s, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Jimmy John’s and Culver’s. It’s currently invested in 22 restaurants.

Buy a Georgia chain? 

I asked Brown, the CEO of the new Inspire Brands, whether he is trying to buy other Georgia-based companies. Maybe Zaxby’s or Waffle House, if they were even open to being sold?

“We are not looking at any of those at this time,” Brown told me.

He also isn’t looking at merging together menus of different chains. Buffalo Wild Wings won’t be carrying Arby’s curly fries; Arby’s won’t be serving Buffalo’s bone-in chicken wings, Brown said.

They might share in other ways, though. Buffalo could adopt some of the processes Arby’s uses to get consumer insights to help come up new menu items, he said. And Arby’s might get faster in rolling out mobile ordering and delivery services, based on what it learns from Buffalo.

Rivals, I imagine, will be aiming at some of the same things. All are trying to figure out what and how consumers want to eat.

“People are looking for new experiences,” Brown told me, “a reason why to eat out versus eat at home.”

He’s particularly focused on finding concepts that serve food consumers wouldn’t normally attempt to make for themselves or that provide experiences they could not get at home.

What’s become increasingly clear, though, is that Atlantans don’t have to go very far to get whatever chain food they want.

Related coverage

Arby’s eats Buffalo wings? Why the chicken wing war is on

Amazon, thanks for sort of picking Atlanta, but … 

Cobb-based convenience chain gets fancy with own wine, chefs

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AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on, including these columns:

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