Eat + Drink

Hot Chicken’s Recipe for Success: Rituals, Limitations, and ‘Bold Humility.’

“LET’S GET READY FOR CHICKENNNNN!”

So begins another day at Hot Chicken Takeover, the former pop-up shop serving up authentic Nashville hot chicken in Columbus. The phrase, delivered today in a booming voice reminiscent of a boxing ring announcement, has become something of a daily mantra before the waiting crowd is herded in every morning. These rituals are part of what makes HCT unique, including daily team huddles where employees air any grievances, give accolades to their coworkers and focus on an affirmation. This morning’s focus? Teamwork.

“Fried chicken is this great social equalizer in so many ways,” said Joe Deloss, founder and head fryer. “That’s why we have these giant communal tables, because it’s food for everyone and an experience for everyone.”

Each meal starts with your choice of chicken and spice level ranging from Cold, Warm, Hot and Holy. The faint of heart may choose “Cold,” which offers up a more mild heat. The true risk takers can order “Holy” if they’d prefer to see through space and time. The chicken is brined, deep-fried and coated with a spicy cayenne paste, piled on white bread and topped with pickles. To tame the heat there is cool, tangy slaw, mac n’ cheese and sweet tea, recipes handed down from Joe’s grandmother (lovingly referred to as “Ma”) and “battle tested through four generations of people.”

Part of the enthusiasm surrounding Hot Chicken Takeover was the idea that they may run out at any given moment. Similar to the insanity surrounding the cronut or rainbow bagel craze in New York, lines trailed out the door as people clamored in to get their hot chicken fix. But Joe insists this was not a gimmick.

“What’s interesting with the whole run-out thing, the reason it started is because we just didn’t know how to make chicken,” he said. “And so making 20 pieces of chicken was a challenge, then making 50 and 100 and 300. So we always ran out mostly because we just didn’t know how to make any more than that number that we were putting out on the board. We have matured as a company and have tightened it up a bit.”

From its humble beginnings serving chicken out of a window in Olde Towne East, Hot Chicken Takeover has grown to locations at North Market and Clintonville as well as a food truck. They’ve also earned a reputation for being a particularly compassionate company. Proceeds from t-shirt sales routinely go to different charities and they offer gainful employment to those who may need it the most.

“For the last 10 years I’ve been committed to fair chance employment, which intentionally means providing work opportunities to men and women who’ve been affected by incarceration or criminal record,” said Joe. “What that gets us is a team of people that are absurdly engaged and productive. High integrity, high character and just deliver on a crazy experience for our customers.”

As demand continues to grow, Hot Chicken Takeover shows no signs of slowing down, with a third location opening up at Easton this fall. Joe attributes their continued success to a good workforce and a positive response to feedback.

“We talk a lot about bold humility,” he said. “We are willing to lean in to what our customers are telling us because we don’t wrap ego up into the means of what we do. We keep improving because we’re willing to listen.”

Rebecca Ritchey writes about food and literature at EatingBooks.com. She works in marketing and is consistently covered in cat hair. Find her as @eatingb00ks on both Twitter and Instagram.