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Hot Chicken Takeover's Recipe for Success

 

Chicken + Community remain the core ingredients of the company that is taking over a city by storm.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Hot Chicken Takeover has always been about more than just fried chicken.

Sure, you can get the Nashville-style chicken served cold, warm, hot or even the infamous Holy "#&@*%?!" But owner Joe DeLoss founded his company in 2014 with the idea of creating a community of employees and customers who could interact in an authentic, meaningful way — regardless of their past or background.

While any company can try to make that claim, Hot Chicken Takeover (HCT) has been committed since day one to hiring individuals who need a fair shot at work. That includes people who may have struggled with addiction, incarceration, homelessness or domestic violence.

“We always believed this idea was bigger than chicken,” Joe said. “Our brand mark is a chicken with an asterisk. That asterisk is our mission, which is about people … we really believe in extraordinary people creating extraordinary experiences for our customers.”

The Chicken

Joe and his wife Lisa had their first taste of Nashville’s famous hot chicken culture when they visited the city in 2013. The taste, smells and diverse mix of people in the restaurant immediately hooked them — and made them long for more.

So after returning to their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, Joe and his wife started experimenting with their own version of that spicy fried chicken. Night after night, they tested their own recipes and shared samples with friends, family and even complete strangers until they got it right.

At the time, Joe was still working another full-time job and his wife was just coming back from maternity leave with their first daughter. But that didn’t stop them from pursuing their dream of owning their own company. In fact, it motivated them to work even harder.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s really meaningful work,” Joe said. “I wanted my kids to be raised around entrepreneurship, and there’s not really a good time to start.”

Joe and Lisa started small, opening a pop-up chicken window in 2014 in Columbus’ Olde Towne East neighborhood through the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $63,000 from 855 funders. People would stand in long lines, hoping to get a taste of chicken before it sold out.

They continued running that pop-up window for about six months before moving into Columbus’ historic North Market, an old brick building that has housed merchants, farmers and bakers since 1876. The success of that venture helped them earn national news coverage and scale to two additional Columbus locations in 2017. They’re planning even more locations next year.

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The Community

Joe attributes his company’s growth to a successful product he sells with sides like “Ma’s Mac,” “Miss B’s Banana Pudding” and their house ranch dressing. But more than that, he believes their ability to scale stems as a direct result of their focus on community.

He had tried several other social entrepreneurship concepts, but all of those failed because he didn’t have a laser-like focus on both his employees and customers. That’s why HCT employees receive competitive wages and unique benefits like counseling services, cash advances and help with housing.

“I always encourage people to consider somebody’s character over their circumstance,” Joe said. “We acknowledge the past of our employees, but we present an opportunity for them to be judged by their future — and that has categorically changed our business.”

Unlike other companies, Joe isn’t afraid to hire individuals who may have criminal backgrounds. In fact, his company’s retention rate is higher than the average because his employees are more engaged and committed to their job.

“It’s not about who you hire; it’s how you hire them,” Joe said. “A lot of entrepreneurs and small-business owners don’t spend enough time on the culture of their workplace. We work really hard at trying to be really intentional about the experience they have.”

HCT’s engaged workforce has a direct impact on its community of customers, who come back regularly for the chicken, but also that sense of belonging. Joe designed his locations to have a family-style feel with long, open tables draped in red and white checkered cloths. And unlike other fast-casual dining concepts, there are no individual tables.

“The bar in quick service and fast casual dining is not particularly high right now,” Joe said. “It’s a hot segment, but there’s a void in that space for a deep connection … that’s why we wanted to create a sense of belonging, engagement and enthusiasm. Hot Chicken Takeover makes you feel like you’re at a family reunion, a neighborhood block party or a potluck.”

Hot Chicken Takeover's Recipe for Success
Chicken + Community remain the core ingredients of the company that is taking over a city by storm. Learn from owner Joe DeLoss as he shares his company’s story with Cathy Lanning, Nationwide’s senior vice president of Property & Casualty Marketing. On iTunes or Stitcher.