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  • Joe Deloss: Founder, Hot Chicken Takeover

Joe Deloss: Founder, Hot Chicken Takeover

Have you ever asked yourself what it truly means to be “in the zone?”

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

I’m not sure I’ve seen a proper definition of the phrase, but much like the hackneyed description of pornography, you know it when you see it, right? In sports, it’s easy: it’s Michael Jordan hanging 63 points on the Celtics in the ’86 NBA Playoffs; it’s Tiger Woods winning four major championships in a row from 2000-01. Or maybe it’s Tom Brady since—oh I don’t know take your pick: Super Bowls, Giselle, more Super Bowls. Point is, when great athletes are doing great things it’s easy to look and say, “Wow, dude is in the zone.”

For normal people though, it’s not quite so easy to tell when they are hitting all the right notes. There’s no grand stage, no trophies, and no supermodel wives. Sometimes it’s just an idea.

But what if I told you about an ordinary guy who had a plan to make chicken? And not just any chicken, but “hot chicken”—as much a Memphis staple as barbecue, blues, and gospel choirs.  And let’s say that guy (who has no culinary background) decided he was going to bring that culinary staple to Columbus, serve it first to his friends, then to people in parking lot hand-offs, then through a window in a building that has no indoor seating and is located in an area of town that 10 years ago made white people about as comfortable as admitting that maybe, just maybe, there’s still a race problem in this great country.

Crazy right?

And what if I told you that this kooky idea would be so wildly popular that people would stand for an hour in the rain waiting for a meal that they may or may not get due to supply shortages? Then turn around and do it again the next week in the same line, and—since it’s Columbus—the same rain?

Well, that man is Joe DeLoss. The idea is Hot Chicken Takeover. And both spent the latter half of the year “in the zone,” going from a pop-up fantasy to the best-reviewed “restaurant” in the entire city of Columbus in just six months.

Now, rather than cool off during the brutal winter, DeLoss and the HCT team are settling in on the second floor of the North Market for phase 2 of their phenomenon.

So let me get this straight: You go to Memphis, discover hot chicken for the first time, and then decide that you want to make chicken for people? That sounds sort of crazy to me. Yeah, I pretty much fell in love with the idea, so I just sort of started playing around with recipes and did a lot of research on how to make really good fried chicken.

And what did you learn in your research? Well, I quickly realized that it’s really, really difficult to make good chicken. So I ended up pooling my resources and invited some friends that knew what they were doing in the kitchen—like executive chefs and people that I knew had really good palates. We formulated a recipe that we liked then started serving our friends.

You call your friends up and say, “Hey come eat my chicken?” Well yeah, sort of. I would invite them over, we would watch a UFC fight or something, and I would serve them my chicken. It was cool…too bad you and I didn’t know each other then.

Dammit, I would’ve loved that. So tell me about the recipe. Is this a proprietary secret a la KFC? I think there’s a lot more to Hot Chicken besides our food that is not easy to replicate. I mean you can’t replicate the people, the atmosphere, and the employees. So I’m less secretive about how we make our product.

Did I hear that you initially served chicken out of your car? Yeah. At some point along the way, my in-laws were in town and they had never tried the chicken, so I had to make it. Right? But it’s really difficult to make just six pieces. I decided I would serve more of it, and then posted online that I had so many meals to give away and would pick an undisclosed location for them to pick it up. There’s an auto body shop across the street from us that’s closed on weekends and I just made them roll up to the parking lot and park.

And you just came out and gave them their chicken? That’s absurd. Yeah my in-laws are in the house and I would run from my fryer to the parking lot [laughs]. I think our first Yelp reviews are from that period.

So wait a second, you go from Spy vs. Spy back-alley deliveries in April to where you are now in the North Market? Yeah, right? It’s crazy

You seem to have a strong sense of community, and outreach is evident in your business. Is that a reflection of your beginnings with Hot Chicken? I wish I could say that we did it all, that we were that smart and had that much insight into what we were doing, but no we didn’t plan it. Part of it was the space that we decided to fill that had an outdoor tent, and picnic-table seating, which sort of created a perfect “community” storm for us. Now on the employment side, that was definitely the intention from before I ever thought of doing Hot Chicken. I really believe in entrepreneurship as a way to really support people, to help make significant changes in their lives and to hoist people up.

You pulled off a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign—855 backers posting $63,401.  Kudos to that, because that seems like a really easy way to fail in a very public manner. What did you do differently than, say, someone who wasn’t as successful? Well, first of all, by the time we did our Kickstarter campaign, we had already served approximately eight or nine thousand people, so we didn’t have to convince people of an idea. We already had a product that people seemed to like. Secondly, we were initially raising funds to expand into a food truck so it was a very concrete thing we needed, and we felt that it would help us add to the community that we had helped build so it was an easy ask. And our customers responded amazingly well.

So you’ve obviously been getting a lot of positive press with Hot Chicken, not just locally but nationally as well with Huffington Post. Do you ever worry about “chicken fatigue” where maybe people—for no good reason—start to resent your success? Yes, I think of that a little. I mean of course fried chicken is hot right now, in fact it’s been trending for quite a while…so, well, yes, of course [pauses]. It actually makes me very anxious. But, you know, there’s something so very classic and traditional about fried chicken, especially in the setting we have it, which is around a shared table. So, yeah, I hope there’s something timeless about that.

A lot of the conversation about HCT—aside from how incredible the food actually tastes—is the limited availability of the product. Be honest: this was planned from the beginning, right? So honestly, I think it’s more a growing pain than anything else. Listen, I ask this question a lot about how much of our success is due to the fact that it’s such a limited resource right now. I mean, you have eight hours each weekend that you can get it, and so what would it look like if we were open seven days a week.? Quite honestly, I’m not confident in that answer. And now with the expansion to the North Market we’re probably going to double the availability of our product. But as of right now we are still going with the model that, “Hey, this is when our product is available and we hope you come at this time.”

By the way, I think it’s genius regardless of how it came about… [Laughs] The reality is that we launched with limited resources, limited access to a kitchen, and to be able to cook the volume to meet the demand was impossible. This will change a little bit with our new kitchen in the North Market.

You have to be a little surprised, though, right? I mean you’re like the Teflon business where nothing bad ever sticks. That’s it, man, that’s the thing. Those days when I’m walking the line, talking to our customers, counting them, and all the while knowing that, Shit, we’re going to run out of chicken. The customers have been wonderful.

What can we expect from the North Market setup? First, it’s indoors and we’ll have about 30 more seats than we have now. This move will also represent the first time we’ve ever actually invested in our own equipment, which by the way, Wasserstrom has helped us out immensely with, and so we are going into this with a better knowledge about production and service. The things we’ve learned from our mistakes will make us better. But the reality is that we will mostly be the same, with open seating and that community feel. Hot Chicken has always been about the food and the people, and we will continue to make it about the food and the people. Hopefully, it will be more food and more people.

Where do you see HTC in three years? You mean when I’m not crying?

Yes, when you close your eyes at night and you’re surveying your empire, what do you see? Honestly, I would love for Hot Chicken to have a bigger footprint—which means we could be a larger employer, which would have to mean multiple locations. I tell you that because we are driven by this idea of growth, and by increasing our workforce. It’s not about having just one site—it’s about multiple sites in multiple locations—hopefully—and waffles…I see waffles in the very near future.

Hot Chicken Takeover started officially serving at the North Market in mid-December. For more, visit hotchickentakeover.com.

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