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The Hot Rise of Authentic Nashville Hot Chicken in Los Angeles
In this episode, we discuss how Shawn Lalehzarian’s years of experience working in the restaurant industry prepared him to open his own successful restaurant. We explore how to differentiate yourself from other existing concepts and build awareness of your business early on, the challenges that Shawn faced opening The Red Chickz, and what's helped him and the business stay strong throughout difficult times.
- Building a social media presence will help you effectively communicate with customers and potential guests about promotions, hour changes, and more.
- As you're franchising, focus on finding the right tech stack to streamline operations and simplify everyday tasks.
- It's crucial to conduct as much research as possible on the concept you'd like to open. Ask a lot of questions and be open to feedback and advice.
Shawn Lalehzarian: With the experience that I had throughout the years, with working with different concepts with well-known chefs, I knew that at the end of the day, it comes down to what product you can produce and put out there.
Matt Levin: Inspirational stories, actionable business tips, and real-world strategies. Join us as today's guest shares how you can make your business more resilient in an unpredictable world.
Hi everyone. I'm Matt Levin and you're listening to The Resilient Restaurant podcast.
I'm joined by Shawn Lalehzarian, co-founder and CEO at The Red Chickz. We'll discuss how his years of experience working in the restaurant industry prepared him to open his own successful restaurant, how to differentiate yourself from other existing concepts and build awareness of your business early on, the challenges that Shawn faced opening The Red Chickz, and what's helped him and the business stay strong throughout difficult times.
Journey from Dishwasher to Restaurant Owner
Matt Levin: Shawn, thank you so much for joining us today.
Shawn Lalehzarian: It's great to be here.
Matt Levin: Can you kick us off a little bit and tell us a bit about your background and how you got into the restaurant industry in the beginning?
Shawn Lalehzarian: Sure. I moved to United States as an immigrant back in '99. I didn't really know much about the country, the culture. I didn't know how to speak English. So the easiest job to get with all those challenges was a dishwasher in a restaurant, and that's how I started. After a couple of months actually working as a dishwasher, I knew that one day I wanted to own a restaurant, and this is the industry that I wanted to be in.
So I got into cooking at the same restaurant, then moved up to become a server, and then managed that restaurant for about a year. After that, I left the restaurant and went to HMSHost as an assistant manager. I worked that post about eight years. Throughout those years, I grew from assistant manager to senior ops manager to oversee airport operations, with over $32 million in revenue and 400 employees. And I also was part of the opening team for restaurants in the United States and Canada. And throughout those years, I've worked with anything from Starbucks to Wolfgang Puck and CPK, Pinkberry, and other brands.
In 2014, opened my own restaurant in downtown LA, opened a second restaurant about a year and a half later, and Red Chickz in 2018.
About The Red Chickz
Matt Levin: That's quite a hands-on history of really, truly working your way up in the industry. Tell us a little bit more about The Red Chickz concept and how that came to be.
Shawn Lalehzarian: Absolutely. So, like I said, we opened our first restaurant in downtown back in 2014. Downtown LA has been growing since I moved here, and after a couple of years having that restaurant, we realized that with the growth that's happening in downtown, we need to change the concept and grow with the community as well. And we were considering a couple of different concepts back then, Nashville hot chicken was one of them. And after doing some research, realized that Nashville hot chicken is a new concept to a lot of areas and market space is open for this concept.
Went to Nashville for couple of weeks to learn more about the culture and also learn about the food presentation and also the recipe. So we'd basically ask everyone from the Uber driver that picked us up at the airport to the bellman at the hotel and anyone that we came across in Nashville. We asked them if they knew anyone who would know how to make Nashville hot chicken. A couple of these folks, they invited us to their house and showed us the home-style Nashville hot chicken.
Also, we got lucky: one of the Uber drivers had a cousin who had a Nashville hot chicken restaurant in Nashville. So he took us to the restaurant, and we spent the whole day in back of the house and front of the house, learning recipes, presentations. What are the main ingredients? What's the true flavor profile for Nashville hot chicken?
So we brought all that back to LA and added our own touch to it. And that's how Red Chickz was born.
Creating Authentic Nashville Hot Chicken
Matt Levin: Were you concerned at all in the challenges of maybe not coming from that background historically? Like you didn't come from Nashville or hadn't been doing this kind of concept before. Or were you pretty comfortable, given all your years of experience and your ability to execute, that you could put together a compelling offering?
Shawn Lalehzarian: That definitely did come up back then when we were discussing the concept, and it wasn't really a concern or a challenge with the experience that I had throughout the years with working with different concepts with well-known chefs. I knew that at the end of the day, it comes down to what product you can produce and put out there.
I don't think the fact that your background comes from the origin of that food or not, that doesn't play much to it. If you can bring the true flavor of that food and if you can bring the authentic presentation and the touches that go into the type of the food or the concept you're putting together, I think that's the main key. And that's how you differentiate yourself from rest of the concepts.
We wanted to make sure that we bring the true flavor and the best product that we can. And with that standard and having that goal, we went after it. And no, honestly, it hasn't been a challenge. It wasn't a concern once we got to market.
Matt Levin: What do you think the hardest part of getting The Red Chickz concept going was, in getting to opening?
Shawn Lalehzarian: Honestly, I would say that the main challenge of opening Red Chickz was getting the recipe down, and not just the Nashville-hot-chicken flavor but also the fried chicken part of it. We spend a good amount of time, multiple chefs, to create a product that we have today.
Part of the challenge was that we knew that we want to expand and we want to have multiple locations. And with that in mind, we wanted to produce a product that the consistency will not be a challenge when we expand. We wanted to make sure that once we open one or two or 10 locations, in all locations, the product will come out the same: the flavor would be there, the crunch, the quality. From the get-go, creating such a product that you can duplicate in the future. I would say that definitely was one of the main challenges that we had.
Lessons Learned with Social Media
Matt Levin: If you had to look back on the opening and getting the business going, are there any mistakes that you made or anything that you'd do a little bit differently next time?
Shawn Lalehzarian: One of the things that I would have done differently would have probably been getting on TikTok a lot sooner than we did. The social media has been a very bold aspect of I'm sure every industry, but for the restaurant industry has been very bold.
So we didn't start our TikTok account from the get-go. It took us three, four months to start it, but still, I mean, we started it early. Those three, four months that we lost, I think it would have helped us even more to become one of the main restaurant TikTok accounts. We are today, but those three, four months would have helped us.
And the reason I say that is because our social media following reflects directly on ourselves. That would have basically helped, not only with awareness and expansions and everything else in marketing, but also with ourselves.
Back to Basics during COVID
Matt Levin: Can you take us back a little bit to March of last year when COVID was first declared a pandemic, what was your first thought? What went through your mind?
Shawn Lalehzarian: We had no idea what's going to happen. LA announced that there's going to be a lockdown, and everything has to be shut down. I think we closed the restaurant for two days then we went back to operation and back to basics.
So we knew that we had to make a lot of adjustments to make sure that we can still be in operation, turn profit, and be able to serve the quality that we wanted. So back to basics was basically our solution. Everything just goes back to barebones of what we can do to just keep the doors open.
And we got a great response. Thanks to our clientele and our fans, we did not close at all throughout the pandemic. We just ended up closing for three or four weeks, if I'm not mistaken, when the riot happened in LA and we were one of the stores that got hit. So to rebuild the store and fix everything up, it took us about three, four weeks. But other than that, we were open throughout the whole pandemic situation.
The challenges that we faced, we were lucky. The staff that we have, we've had this staff since we opened our very first restaurant. They've been with us for six, seven years. Luckily we had them to show up every day and help us with operation. But the challenges, absolutely. Nothing has been the same as it was prior to COVID, obviously. The rise in takeout orders was high, which affects the food costs to a certain extent. And then the prices of products that has gone up and everything else that comes with it.
So it's been a challenging couple of years, the shortage in products, and how we had to go through different sources and vendors to make sure we get the products so we don't have any shortage in what we offer to our guests.
But all of it, I think we did a great job going through it. It's been challenging. Great learning curve. Also, I think on the bright side, it showed us that our concept can withstand challenges like this and still be operational, still be profitable, still be able to serve the food and the quality that we want, which was a positive, I guess, part of this whole thing.
Matt Levin: Did you have to make major process decisions and decisions on deploying new technology? And if so, what were they and what did you do?
Shawn Lalehzarian: Definitely. One of the major adjustments that we had to make was our hours of operation. We are in downtown and prior to COVID, we were open to midnight. On weekends, we were open ‘til three in the morning. And that was the major shift that we had to make. It affected every aspect, from staffing to, obviously, having all those adjustments for safety in place and shutting down our patio and the dining room and all that stuff.
And at the same time, I want to say one of the challenges was we wanted to make sure that we take care of our staff. Even though we didn't have enough hours, we were cutting hours, we wanted to make sure that we don't leave our staff in this tough time. So making adjustments to make sure everyone gets hours, but at the same time, our labor stays the same. So all of these were basically adjustments that we had to make in our operation to be able to go through those rough days.
Using Technology to Become Resilient
Matt Levin: If you were giving someone advice to make your operation more resilient, what would it be, based on your own experience?
Shawn Lalehzarian: I would say what helped us stay strong throughout the tough time, big part of it was definitely our social media presence. Being able to have that outreach to as many people as we have on our social media on a daily basis. Basically letting them know that we are open, and we're still serving food, and these are our hours, and the promotions that we were running through that time, and all the donations that we were making to different hospitals and establishments. I think that was, like I said, the main ingredient of helping us to stay strong during that time.
Matt Levin: Can you explain a little bit why you were well prepared? You had a modern point of sale. You were hooked up with third-party delivery services, app in place.
Did you feel like that was just a necessary requirement for doing business with your type of concept in 2020, or 2018 when you started the business? Do you consider yourself more forward-thinking when it comes to technology adoption? I'm curious how you were in a favorable position, versus others who may have not been in such a favorable position.
Shawn Lalehzarian: Great point, Matt. So I would say it's a couple of things, right? One is, definitely, we try to stay ahead. So forward-thinking is definitely something that we focus on and that's how we got, as an example, that's how we got on TikTok.
And with our franchising now, we have included a lot of different technologies, such as Jolt, to make the operation easy. To make it more simple and easy, but at the same time, with Jolt as an example, it's the software that helps you with all the temp logs that you have to give for the restaurant to ensure that the quality is there, but not the old-fashioned one where you have to deal with the stacks of papers, and how to keep them for the years that you have to, and make sure that they stay readable, and there's no tampering, or any of those concerns.
So definitely, technology and forward-thinking is one of the things that we've focused on. Also another thing that I would say got us to bring all these elements into our concept was: how can we make it simple for our customers to get our product? How can we cut steps? So instead of them having to have access to a computer and get on our website and place an order, how can we make it easier? So let's do an app so they can just get on the app, set up one time, and if they want to place an order, it would take them literally five seconds to place an order.
Keeping things simple is one of the core elements of our concept, everything from our menu to operation to how customers can order food or get our product. It's not done, I mean, we are still working on it and improving every day. Like you mentioned, there are a lot of technologies out there that would help simplifying the business and making it more efficient. But those two mindsets, I would say, were the key for us to get to be ahead of the game. And when such a situation hit us, we were already in a winning position to not only reach out to people through our social media, but also through push notification option that we have had with our app and everything else that comes with it.
Matt Levin: So tell me a little bit more about what else is in your technology stack, currently?
Shawn Lalehzarian: Obviously, as a fried chicken restaurant, the main element of our kitchen is our fryers and the main ingredient that we go through the most would be oil. We are working with restaurant technology to see how we can improve the operation of our fryers, and make it easy for staff and operators to keep the quality of oil. And also have not as much of a footprint that's needed to have the operation and the fryers that is required for this concept. That's another, technically a technology thing that we are working with.
As for the POS, we use Toast, which again has helped drastically with making things easier. We use Otter for our third-party platforms.
Market Trends on the Horizon
Matt Levin: Pull back and look at the overall landscape. What are some of the changes that you're seeing and some of the trends? Is this a major time of change?
Shawn Lalehzarian: Absolutely. I think the industry is definitely — so what we have experienced within the last 18 months, the rises on takeout and delivery, I don't think that's going to go away. I think people are going to get, as they have gotten more comfortable with takeout and delivery, I think that's here to stay.
I'm not sure how much of the dining experience is going to come back. I'm sure it is going to come back. A lot of people say it's gone, but I don't think it's gone. It. It's going to come back, but I don't think it's going to come back to the same scale that it was prior to COVID.
And I think we can see that trend coming with giants in the industry that are opening their new locations. Even those concepts that, prior to COVID, they did not have any locations with drive-through, we see these concepts adjusting and adding drive-through to their new locations. We'll see the giants, that they used to have one or two lines of drive-through. Now they're opening restaurants with four or five drive-through lines. That's definitely one of the changes that we'll see coming in the next three to five years.
And the other change that I can see happening in the industry would be automated service for placing order inside of the restaurant instead of having staff of cashiers or servers. I think that technology is going to come in and probably take some of those jobs, not only to simplify the operation, but also help with costs, and the challenges of staffing, and everything else that we have been facing the last 18 months, mainly the last four months.
I think these two changes are the main changes that we'll see in the industry within the next three to five years.
Advice to Newcomers
Matt Levin: So if you were to pull back and look on all your years of experience and you were to pick out your best piece of advice, particularly for newer operators, what would your biggest piece of advice be?
Shawn Lalehzarian: For those who want to open their very first location, I would say, do as much research as you can and try to learn as much as you can about the industry.
What I've seen in the last twenty-some years is that a lot of people have the dream of owning a restaurant or a coffee shop, something in the food industry is a dream of a lot of people. It's cool. It's exciting. It's nice. And it's a profitable business to start.
And the perception out there is that it doesn't really require much of anything. You don't have to go to school for it. You don't have to have any sort of diploma or anything. It doesn't require any specific knowledge. All you have to do is just open a restaurant and put some food together, put the staff in store, and open doors, and people are going to come and buy your food, and you're going to have a successful business.
Six months go by, and you realize that there are a lot of moving parts that you didn't even think about. You had no idea that these are going to be the challenges you're going to face and as a result, you don't have any solutions for them. I think that's where they start going down, and unfortunately closing down after a year and a half or two.
My advice would be do as much research as you can, learn as much as you can. And if your resources are limited with that, you don't even know what to look for, then try to find a successful operator and ask them. Try to find a successful restaurant that you go to or that’s in your area. Maybe you know the owner or the manager or become friends with one. And maybe you can sit down with them for an hour or two and tell them all the challenges that you'll face when you open a new operation and what to do and what not to do. That would save a lot of time and a lot of losses.
Matt Levin: Great advice. Shawn, thank you so much for joining us today. This was super insightful and gave us a ton of insight into the mind of someone who is both deeply experienced as an operator in all facets of the business, but also somewhat early on the journey to building what hopefully is a leading light in Nashville hot chicken. Hopefully I'll get out to LA again shortly and be able to have a taste.
Shawn Lalehzarian: Sounds great and thank you. It was great chatting with you. We'll hopefully talk soon.
Thanks for listening to The Resilient Restaurant. Sign up for our podcast newsletter at marketman.com/podcast to receive bonus content and exclusive podcast announcements. You can also find articles on marketman.com/blog for more content related to the restaurant industry and restaurant management.
This podcast was produced and edited by MarketMan. Music by Joseph McDade.