You might not realize it when you dig into a plate of spicy chicken wings at Columbus, Ohio’s Hot Chicken Takeover (HCT), but this restaurant serves a side of social justice along with its popular cuisine. It’s just one more proof that a business can be successful while at the same time helping those leaving prison get their lives back together.
After tasting Nashville’s famous hot chicken and realizing that there was nothing like it in Columbus, founder Joe DeLoss and his wife Lisa began serving their own version out of their car in a parking lot on weekends. It became a hit, and soon the two found space indoors on the second floor of the city’s North Market, where they were able to serve customers on a more regular basis.
DeLoss took his experience as the founder of a sandwich catering business – a subsidiary of Lutheran Social Services of Central Ohio that hired employees from homeless shelters – and applied it to his new restaurant.
Majority of staff members have been incarcerated
“Seventy percent of the staff is previously incarcerated,” says Cam Williams, the company’s director of operations. “Through media and referrals we attract people who may not have luck finding work elsewhere.”
Hot Chicken Takeover also receives referrals from organizations, including Kind Way, led by a former warden at three Ohio correctional institutions. She put together a group of business leaders who go into prisons and work with people while they’re still inside and provide a support system when they get out.
The staff of HCT operates the restaurant as well as a food truck that serves chicken at events and Columbus Crew professional soccer team games.
In addition to the food it serves and the community it creates through communal dining – the restaurant’s tables are all long and to be shared – HCT carries out a social mission to help formerly incarcerated individuals launch new lives upon release. As they say, “It’s about more than just chicken.”
“We provide financial, personal and professional growth opportunities,” says Williams. “We have a benefits coordinator who connects people with local resources, including Kemba Financial Credit Union, which helps them open a bank account for savings and has even been working with our staff who have been incarcerated for crimes including check fraud.”
Other employee benefits include a savings match program for people who are saving for things like transportation and education, with a 2-to-1 match of up to $700 per year. Employees are also offered an opportunity to meet twice a month with a financial coach to help them plan their financial future. Community partners help secure housing if they need it, because as a university town, it can be difficult to find affordable housing with good landlords in Columbus. And if necessary, there’s a licensed counselor to help with personal crises as they arise.
Although Hot Chicken Takeover provides its employees with an unusual level of services, Williams makes it clear that they’re running a business not a charity.
“We don’t see it as charitable,” he says. “The only thing we do that is charitable is give people a chance.”
Hot Chicken Takeover has high employee retention rate
And the effort pays off in dedicated employees. “We’re sitting at 60% retention. The industry standard is 100% to 150% turnover,” he says.
Although the company plans to operate another restaurant by the end of the year and is currently looking for a location, HCT has its sights set on something greater than selling chicken – hopefully starting a consulting business to help other companies do what it is doing.
“We’re not in this to be restauranteurs,” says Williams. “We’re passionate about expanding the human resources model that we have. We see it as a replicable system that other restaurants or warehouses could include in their business. We’re justifying what we do as being an economic solution not just doing something good. It’s a business that directly benefits from our social mission through retaining employees and not having to retrain them.”