Forget celebrity chefs. There is a new star in town: the Celebrity CEO.
Todd Graves, the founder of Raising Cane’s is one.
Graves was in Los Angeles this week to promote a new series he hosts called “Secret Sauce with Todd Graves,” which launches March 4 on A&E. In the series, he speaks with entrepreneurs across multiple industries about how they achieved their dreams, including folks like basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, music mogul Snoop Dogg, actor Danny Trejo and jewelry designer Kendra Scott.
Graves is certainly not the first entrepreneur to spin success into entertainment. Tilman Fertitta had the series “Billion Dollar Buyer.” Loads of restaurant CEOs have appeared on “Undercover Boss,” and, of course, there’s “Wahlburgers” and a host of other reality shows offering a (likely scripted) peek into the inner workings of the restaurant industry.
Restaurant operators love Graves because he’s just a guy from Louisiana who took a simple idea to serve chicken fingers, crinkle-cut fries and big slabs of buttered toast and turned it into a more-than 700-unit restaurant chain with average unit volumes now topping $5 million, all company owned.
He likes to tell the story about how his business plan earned a terrible grade while he was in college, and banks repeatedly turned him away for loans. But he did it anyway, raising money to open the first restaurant in Baton Rouge, La., by working at an oil refinery in Los Angeles and fishing for sockeye salmon in Alaska.
Now using the title of co-CEO of Raising Cane’s, Graves is still very involved in the business, but he’s also cultivating his IMDb profile, the database that is crucial for anyone in the entertainment biz.
“Secret Sauce” isn’t Graves’ first series. In 2021, he hosted “Restaurant Recovery,” in which he helped independent operators climb back from the abyss after the pandemic.
Because Raising Cane’s has long had a strong drive-thru business, the chicken-finger brand actually thrived through the pandemic shutdown, he said.
“But that didn’t feel good to us because we knew those extra sales came from those family restaurants that don’t have the marketing budgets I do,” Graves said. “The whole idea was to show these stories of these families and how hard they work and how special their food is, and how they’re cultural centers for the neighborhood.”
Graves has also appeared in a number of other shows, including “Secret Millionaire” on Fox (in which he and his wife give $400,000 to parishes devastated by Hurricane Katrina); Animal Planet’s “Treehouse Masters,” Discovery’s “Fast N’ Loud” and Food Network’s “Food Court Wars.”
Some might say he’s gone a bit Hollywood.
For “Secret Sauce,” Graves hosted a West Hollywood premiere party at an event venue, tucked into a residential neighborhood.
It was meant to be an LA-style backyard party around the pool of a decked-out bungalow designed for events like this, with a Raising Cane’s truck out front, dishing up the famed chicken fingers with the chain’s actual secret sauce (the recipe is known only to managers).
Sadly, one of the many atmospheric rivers that have hit LA of late passed over the city just as the event started, and Angelinos don’t do rain. The few who showed, sat huddled under patio umbrellas while Graves juggled interviews in the back house.
But some celebrity friends showed. Trejo, for example, stood gleefully over the hors d’oeuvre table, saying, “What a great spread!”
When asked about his own growing restaurant concepts, the star of “Machete” and “Machete Kills” (and also a long list of other great films) said he just opened a fifth location of Trejo’s Tacos in downtown Los Angeles. He also has a donut shop, Trejo’s Donuts, known for its pineapple fritters.
He leaned in to whisper almost conspiratorially, “The pineapple fritters are addictive.”
Graves said the new “Secret Sauce” is for entrepreneurs who want motivation to follow their dream—particularly when they’ve been told by someone, as he was, that their dream is impossible.
“I wanted a show that would inspire people,” Graves said. “I want people to see that if you have a dream and you work hard, you can do it.”
(It's a message that, frankly, many might dispute in Los Angeles, a town of 10-lane highways paved with broken dreams.)
Graves’ dream doesn’t seem to have stopped with Raising Cane’s, though the chain continues to add about 100 units per year. This year, Raising Cane’s is scheduled to open a flagship unit in New York City’s Times Square, which Graves said will help propel the brand to new markets.
Currently, Raising Cane’s is in 35 states, but potential Caniacs who don’t have one in their community can visit the Times Square location or other tourist hot spots known for Big Name Celebrity concepts, like the Las Vegas Strip.
Or they can watch Graves on TV.
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