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Apr 11, 2019

Hot take: Employee focus one of restaurant’s keys to success


What: Hot Chicken Takeover
Who: Ashley Leach, Director of Finance and Administration
Business: Casual Nashville-style hot chicken restaurant
Based: Columbus
Founded: 2014

Ashley Leach joined Hot Chicken Takeover in 2015 and has been central to its success and growth. From just five employees as a pop-up in Olde Towne East, the restaurant has grown to more than 100 employees in three Columbus locations and recently announced its expansion to Cleveland. Nation’s Restaurant News recently named it one of its 2019 Breakout Brands.

HCT is one of more than 25 local social enterprises that provide supportive jobs to men and women who need a fair chance at work, whether it bet homelessness, previous incarceration, or another barrier to employment. Hot Chicken Takeover has managed its growth while adhering to its mission that 70 percent of its employees needed fair-chance consideration to be employed. Once hired, the company supports its employees’ financial stability, personal growth, and professional development with an array of benefits. 

We talked with Ashley Leach about what has driven the success and growth of this social enterprise. 

What criteria do you use to assess the success of your business?

We look at sales, labor costs, 5-star ratings and our food, beverage and paper costs. These metrics help us keep a close pulse on each restaurant’s operations and weekly performance. Aside from this, we put a significant amount of focus on our team. They are our best asset, and we believe that investing in them will drive better outcomes at our restaurants. We monitor the turnover and tenure of our team members as well as what benefits they are accessing to ensure our benefit offerings are current and relevant.

What are your unique benefit offerings?

We offer a combination of services that we pay for and services that are provided pro bono by partners such as Dress for Success and Pursuit. We offer cash advances, legal services, bicycle discounts, resume writing, business clothing discounts, and a savings-match program. Our benefits coordinator continually monitors how many times employees take advantage of these benefits and helps employees to connect with the benefits that would best help them to have a stable life.

What is the greatest lesson you learned in creating success?

Focus on the right outcomes for our people. Good ideas flow through our management teams all the time, but how do we know if they are right for our team? The best lessons we have learned are tied to the decisions, or close calls, that could have been better for a conventional business, but ultimately could have had negative consequences for our team. For example, management spent a great deal of time and money acquiring alcoholic beverage licenses for our new locations. But then we heard chatter from team members about worries by those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. So we cancelled the program. Creating a safe space for our employees is core to our mission.

What person or experience best exemplifies the impact you’re trying to create?

I can think of many stories of team members with meaningful outcomes during or after their time with HCT. From a team member who started his own car-detailing business or one who became a certified drug counselor, these stories are a meaningful part of why we do what we do. For some, we act as a stepping stone to pursue opportunities in their desired career fields and for others we provide meaningful employment and growth opportunities internally. A great example of team members who represent the opportunities we want to create are represented in the interview we did with Megyn Kelly of The Today Show.

Joe DeLoss and two Hot Chicken Takeover
team members join The Today Show.

How do you balance the needs of the business and the needs of your employees?

We keep a pulse on how our decisions impact not only the business but also our employees. We have regular round-table sessions with team members at each location focusing on a range of topics. Each quarter we have a Q&A session at each site for drop-in questions by team members. This provides us with valuable feedback on how well our operational decisions are aligning with our values. In addition, each administrative employee must work at least two shifts per year in one of our restaurants to ensure we remain grounded in the reality of the work environment.

What’s next for Hot Chicken Takeover?

In the next five years, we plan to expand our brand into multiple markets across the Midwest. We’re aiming to exceed 1,000 jobs and $50 million in revenue. Our vision is pretty simple: We want to be “a growing community of people flourishing and enriching the lives of others.” We call this our North Star. It’s the reason we do what we do every day,. and it guides our daily decision-making.

What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?

Being a good employer takes a strong focus and commitment. If you make the right investments in your team, the outcomes will speak for themselves.

Learn how you can do business with local social enterprises, including Hot Chicken Takeover, at