The Hot Chicken Kitchen Story

How a group of experienced franchisors were determined to bring their local favorite dish to the mainstream the right way

Hot Chicken Kitchen could only have gotten its start in Nashville, Tennessee. Not only is Music City the birthplace of the iconic Nashville dish, but it is also where Martin Tunnell and Alan Thompson, two veterans in the franchise industry, have called home for the last several decades.

Hot Chicken Kitchen Nashville Style Hot Chicken log on a glass window

The pair have watched their hometown go from a sleepy state capital best known for producing country music into one of the fastest growing cities in America, not to mention one of the hippest. Perhaps it was in 2012, when Nashville became a surprise hit television show on ABC — showing the entire country that life in Music City was as stylish as New York City or Los Angeles — that created the wave of media attention Nashville is still experiencing to this day. Perhaps it was Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban or the countless other celebrities who have moved here in the past several years that made Nashville hip. One thing is for sure: when the media fell in love with Nashville, it wasn’t long before they discovered hot chicken.

Hot Chicken is a Nashville original. It all started in the 1930s as payback to an unfaithful man. One day the lady he had scorned decided to “spice up” her southern fried chicken, a favorite of the philandering fellow. The real surprise was that he loved the seriously spicy chicken she served him and wanted more! The rest, as they say, is history.

As hot chicken became more and more popular, fast food chains such as Popeyes, Chick-fil-A, and KFC added approximated versions of the Music City mainstay to their menus. Martin and Alan not only saw a remarkable business opportunity but the pair also grew protective over their favorite dish — only Nashville locals ought to take their city’s best known dish to the rest of the country.

“We visited just about every hot chicken place, not only in Nashville, but where they had sprung up in the rest of the country,” Martin says. “We found that the market was so excited about hot chicken, but we also found that most of the places we visited outside of Nashville were lacking in either the consistency of the taste profile or in the southern charm that makes the dining experience unique. But being that the demand for hot chicken was there, we saw an opportunity to be the first brand to license the concept, as well as be the first brand to get it right outside of Nashville.”

Creating a first-rate model and proving the success of Hot Chicken Kitchen

Interior of a Hot Chicken Kitchen with a full menu and counter
Martin and Alan set about the task of creating the nation’s first hot chicken license concept, Hot Chicken Kitchen, in 2014. They spent two years in development and another year creating the menu, which includes the secret recipe we use to prepare our hot chicken to this day, as well as the various ways to serve it (platter-style, sandwiches, wraps) and the southern-inspired side items: collard greens, cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese and so much more.

“We really wanted our food to be authentic to Nashville,” Martin says. “But we also wanted to ensure that every time we prepared our food, it would taste the same. That is not the norm in the majority of the hot chicken places we visited, but it is certainly what consumers expect when they visit their favorite restaurants. Once we could do that successfully using a very simple process, I knew our concept would be successful.”

Business Model for Hot Chicken ManagerWith their knowledge of the franchise industry at the forefront of their mind, every detail of the Hot Chicken Kitchen business model was designed for ease of operation: from the buildout, to the way the food is prepared and served, so that the business could be fun to own and easy to scale. The business was also designed to give customers the look and feel of Nashville as soon as they enter through the doors: from the creation of our own country music radio station, to the church pew seating, to the use of real silverware, and the images of Nashville country music stars that line the walls.

Hot Chicken Kitchen was launched in 2016 in Alabama and Michigan, where the first two locations opened. These vastly different areas not only cemented the reality that hot chicken could be successful outside of Nashville, but that folks also really craved the authentic dining experience just as much as they craved the hot chicken.

“It’s very rare for a new brand to have the level of expertise that we have on our team,” Alan says. “We wanted to design a business that could be successful over the long-term, and I’m proud to say that I think we have achieved that. Now, we’re looking for entrepreneurs who are passionate about hot chicken and want to grow with us. We’re going to quickly establish ourselves as the premier hot chicken restaurant chain nationwide through an aggressive expansion campaign. Our aim is to open hundreds of locations in the coming years and be the first nationally known brand for hot chicken.”

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