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Emerging Brands

Buzzworthy Brands: How Joella’s Hot Chicken is wooing wedding business

This growing fast-casual concept serves Nashville hot chicken with six hot sauce choices, from mild to “fire-in-da-hole.”
Photograph courtesy of Joella's

Buzzworthy BrandsBuzzworthy Brands is a weekly Restaurant Business feature highlighting innovative growth brands that operators should keep an eye on. A fresh Buzzworthy Brands profile will be published each Thursday.

The concept: Joella’s Hot Chicken

The details: A fast-casual Nashville hot chicken concept that started in 2015. It’s based in Louisville, Ky., and currently has eight locations, plus a food truck, in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. Joella’s Hot Chicken has nine leases signed for openings in the coming months, expanding its footprint into Atlanta and Florida.

The backstory: Joella’s first unit opened in a former gas station in Louisville. The concept is known for its deft marketing touches. Its hot chicken is served with six different heat levels, from mild to “fire-in-da-hole,” said Christina Happel, regional vice president of operations. Customers who want to try that one must sign a waiver in advance. Plus, with every new store opening, the first 100 people in line get free chicken every week for a year. People start lining up, with sleeping bags, 24 hours in advance, where they’re entertained with music, giveaways and food samples. The opening celebration helps build excitement and creates a customer base, Happel said.

Why it’s worth watching: Smart marketing—from Joella’s food truck to its new focus on wedding business—is helping fuel its growth. Plus, hot chicken continues to grow in popularity. The number of operators menuing “Nashville hot” items has increased 170% in the past five years, according to Technomic Ignite menu data. The menu’s variety of spice levels as well as a vegan option suit a variety of diners. Most units sell local craft beer, and a few offer spiked frozen drinks. Most of the chain’s new restaurants have drive-thrus.

hot chicken catering

Photograph courtesy of Joella's

HERE ARE FIVE GROWTH-MINDED QUESTIONS WITH HAPPEL:

  1. Joella’s website prominently highlights your wedding offerings. How are you trying to build your wedding business?

This time last year, we started thinking, “Hey, this could really appeal to larger weddings.” So much is trending right now with people having down home, rustic weddings. We now staff someone, [and] that’s all she does is wedding shows. She keeps up with all the leads coming in. We have pages on WeddingWire and The Knot. Even if we’re not doing their wedding, they’ll book us for their rehearsal dinner. Our catering business in general is about 8% of our total sales. We do have the goal to get that into double digits.

  1. What about wedding guests or other customers who don’t eat meat or have other dietary concerns?

We have a vegan option, which has really been monumental in these weddings. We’ve seen people have chosen us because we can accommodate their vegan guests at their wedding. … It’s a soy-based product. It gives them the opportunity to sit down with everyone else next to them and experience that hot chicken flavor and they don’t feel excluded. We have a gluten-free option, dairy-free, egg-free. We try to make sure our cashiers are educated on that.

  1. Many chains start out as a food truck. But Joella’s added a food truck after opening brick-and-mortar stores. Why?

The food truck serves multiple purposes. Locally, in Louisville, it’s seen most often. It’s downtown, serving those businesses during lunch. But it’s also available to book for private events. It has attended many weddings. People just want that experience. It’s something cool that not everyone else has. It’s also a great marketing tool for our brand.

  1. Wings are a notoriously volatile commodity. How does Joella’s deal with pricing fluctuations?

Wings are up significantly year over year. We offer tenders and the whole wing. About 55% of our protein is tenders, and that tender price stays about the same. We haven’t been hit as hard trying to fight that battle with our food costs.

  1. Does Joella’s offer delivery?

We partnered exclusively with DoorDash at the beginning of this year. It has been wildly successful. Of our carryout business, 15% to 20% of that is from online ordering. … When you roll out delivery, you’re worried about a couple different main things, namely food quality. We had a hard stance that we were not going to do any advertising to promote [that] you could get Joella’s through DoorDash. What we’ve seen is strong results from not saying anything at all. The next phase is to try to get people to order delivery through our website. … For delivery, we battle more with the temperature of our fries than the temperature of the chicken. The chicken goes into a ventilated box. Our crispy fries, they’re thin and skinny. We’ve implemented changes internally to keep them as fresh as possible. We don’t cook those fries and put them in a bag until the delivery person arrives.

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