The more than 2 million annual visitors to Dollywood will have an opportunity this season to taste a regional favorite since the 1982 World’s Fair.
Petro’s Chili & Chips, which features corn chips covered with chili, cheese, tomatoes, green onions and sour cream, is making its debut in the theme park.
It is the first time other than during its festivals that the theme park has brought in an outside vendor to operate a food operation.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to share something that was born right here in East Tennessee,” Dollywood spokesman Pete Owens said.
And for Dale Widmer, president of Petro’s, it should go a long way to helping the brand become a household name.
Petro’s has embarked on an aggressive growth plan that includes a new franchising partner as well as a new menu, logo and food-truck concept that is slated to hit Knoxville streets in May.
“We always felt we had a concept that was a home run. The challenge was how to grow it,” Widmer said.
Widmer and his brother Keith purchased the Petro’s trademark shortly after the 1982 World’s Fair. The first Petro’s opened in 1985 in West Town Mall with a second location opening shortly afterward in Knoxville Center Mall.
But after years of opening a few stores, the Widmers pulled back from franchising the fast-food concept as they looked for someone to help them.
“In the last year, we’ve been working to propel ourselves in this growth model but now we’re poised to grow even more,” Widmer said. “We’re very excited about it. We definitely have had to trim back, restructure. It’s been hard, but we’ve never lost vision of wanting to grow.”
Last February, Widmer teamed up with Dan Pool of Georgia-based Pool Restaurant Group, which has grown the Gandolfo’s New York Style Delicatessen to dozens of locations mostly in the Western half of the United States. Together, the new partners formed the Petro’s Franchise Group.
Keith Widmer is still a Petro’s partner but now works full time as president of First Commercial Real Estate. Another brother, Randy, is executive vice president operations for Petro’s.
The company currently has six corporate stores and 11 franchise stores but aims to add a dozen more locations by the end of this year and a total of 700 by 2020.
New locations are planned for Atlanta, Crossville and Dallas. Knoxville is also a target growth market, which could easily see 10 more stores, Widmer said.
The group has already sold its first food-truck franchise to brothers Edwin and Henry Wong. The food truck is expected to hit Knoxville streets in May.
Last fall, the company expanded into college campuses including Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Middle Tennessee State University and Vanderbilt. There are already five locations in Neyland Stadium and one in Thompson Boling Arena.
Talks are also under way to put a store inside the Atlanta airport.
Meanwhile, Petro’s has been testing a new menu at its 7005 Kingston Pike store, which has seen double-digit sales increases over the last six weeks, Widmer said.
The new menu, which includes Nathan’s Famous brand of hotdogs as well as expanded nacho and baked potato items, will be in all of its stores by the end of April. A new breakfast menu is also in the works and could be ready in about six months.
“We’ve always known people liked the product,” Widmer said. “The demand is there.”