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October 11, 2012

Lizard’s Thicket opens 15th restaurant, looks to expand statewide

If country cookin’ makes you good lookin’, South Carolina is about to get a lot prettier.

If country cookin’ makes you good lookin’, South Carolina is about to get a lot prettier.

Lizard’s Thicket – a Southern-cooking staple in the Midlands for 35 years – is looking to expand statewide in the coming years. The move follows the successful opening of the company’s first store outside the Midlands in more than a decade, executives said.

The family-owned restaurant group, which serves Southern specialties including biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and catfish, has 14 restaurants in the Midlands. Last month, it opened its 15th in outlying Florence.

“It’s the same old Lizard’s Thicket. We’re just looking to grow again,” chief executive officer Bobby Williams said. “Our business has stayed really good during the (economic) slowdown.”

Lizard’s Thicket is able to grow because it remains an attractive value option for diners. The cost for the average breakfast is about $7 and a meat-and-three lunch or dinner is about $10, Williams said.

While eyeing Rock Hill and Summerville as ideal locations, Williams said the restaurant company will look at just about any site. All of the new stores will be company owned, not franchised, he said. An attempt to franchise in the Upstate a decade ago fizzled.

Taking the brand statewide should be a natural for the longtime Midlands business, said Marianne Bickle, director of the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina.

“Lizard’s Thicket, in particular, has a very good business plan,” Bickle said. “They know their brand. They know their target market, and they don’t try to change it. … They run a very smart ship.”

The company also is careful in selecting sites that will maximize the number of customers “so that when it opens, it is very successful and the parking lot is packed,” she said.

That is exactly what happened when the company opened its new Florence location at 1712 W. Palmetto St. three weeks ago.

“People know us all over the state now, so when we opened up we had instant (interest),” Williams said. He said store managers changed the sign from “coming soon” to “now open” at 8 p.m. one night and “the next day, we were packed.”

Crowds have not waned since, and the company wants to duplicate that success – from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, he said.

The company’s Florence location was its first new outlet since it built locations in Lexington and Blythewood in 2009.

The restaurant group is going back to its roots with this expansion, Williams said.

Lizard’s Thicket tried franchising previously, including a store in Greenville and one just over the South Carolina-North Carolina line, north of Spartanburg, about a decade ago. Those ventures failed because the corporate office lost control over the restaurants, Williams said. “We didn’t like the feeling.”

Also, instead of building a new store, Lizard’s Thicket bought and renovated a restaurant that had closed.

“We wanted to be in Florence. For years, we had talked about it,” Williams said, adding the company “finally took the step” when a vacant restaurant building came on the market with plenty of room for parking and a drive-through window.

“We could make it work for us instead of building from the ground up,” said Williams, adding he was surprised it took so long to find the right spot during the economic downturn.

“We were just positioning ourselves so, when something did become available, we could buy it without having to go to the bank and borrow money,” he said.

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