Joella’s Hot Chicken Plans Explosive Growth in 2016


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Southern food is hot. The trend toward authentic southern food shows no sign of slowing down.

Joella’s Hot Chicken is capitalizing on that trend in a big way. Tony Palombino, CEO and founder of EAP Restaurant Concepts, the multi-brand parent company of BoomBozz Craft Pizza & Taphouse, Manny & Merle, and now Joella’s Hot Chicken, plans to grow fast in 2016.

Palombino said eight to 10 restaurants would be in development for 2016, with six definite openings in the year at a cost of $350,000 to $500,000 per 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot restaurant. That might not seem all that explosive compared to some other growth concepts, but the first restaurant just opened in September 2015.

“It had tremendous success out of the gate, we call it lightening in a bottle,” said Palombino. “I didn’t anticipate scaling this quick, but I’ve been in this business a long time, and as I’ve told my management team, this doesn’t happen often.”

He said he’s seen this kind of success once before, with a few good concepts in between, but at a sales per square foot of $915—topping Chipotle’s average of $840 and other fast-casuals like Panera, Noodles and Zoe’s that come in between $430 and $550—he’s pretty excited at the prospects. That unit volume will come in at about $1.8 million for the initial Louisville, Ky., location if trends continue through September 2016.

To reach those numbers, Palombino created a millennial mecca through an exclusive partnership with a small batch cane sugar sodas manufacturer, “super premium” hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken, and wildly popular social media channels.

“I can’t say enough about social media,” said Palombino. “You can definitely see what’s driving the brand through social media and that’s the 25- to 35-year-olds taking pictures or videos of how hot the chicken is.”

The next logical step is, of course, craft beer.

“Typically in fast-casuals, the red-headed stepchild is the beer and alcohol,” said Palombino. “You go up to the counter and grab a beer, but the chances of you getting another beer are slim.”

To keep the beer and the food line flowing, Palombino said the larger campus-adjacent Lexington, Ky., location will feature a “wall of beer” where diners can use a card and pour their own brews.

“We found a company called Draftserv that have self-serve craft beer walls,” said Palombino. “We’re utilizing the local craft beer scene which is absolutely amazing in the Lexington area.”

Palombino said he’s looking forward to alcohol sales complementing the already strong in-house dining, catering and carryout components, and also expects the Lexington store to perform highly given its better location.

“If you look at our first location [in Louisville], it’s definitely a C location, but we have some history there,” said Palombino, noting that it was the original location of BoomBozz Craft Pizza before they changed the concept for a larger footprint that included a bar.

In the back half of 2016 and beyond, Palombino said there is a strong likelihood of entering the coveted Washington, D.C., market with more corporate locations. And while franchising is a driver for BoomBozz, Joella’s won’t go that route just yet.

“We’re opening company stores first,” said Palombino. “Then we’re going to target existing restaurant companies or groups that want to diversify or add a brand to their portfolio that can maybe do 20 to 30 locations; we’re going to target those for sure and scale that way.”

He said the management team made up of former Cracker Barrel, Chuy’s, and Gold Star Chili veterans is already poised to take on the growth and guide that lightening in a bottle. 

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