Tennessee-style chicken restaurant founder expands his ethical business model to Clintonville and Easton

From selling pilfered pantry items out of a wagon as a kid to snagging one of Columbus' most-desired retail addresses, Joe DeLoss has come a long way.

“I've been some version of an entrepreneur since 4th grade,” says the founder and operator of Hot Chicken Takeover, the growing Columbus restaurant chain with a social mission at its core.

On the heels of its January announcement of an expansion into Clintonville, the restaurant now is readying its third location at Easton Town Center. It will be at 4198 Worth Ave., next to FUSIAN in the Easton Gateway.

DeLoss' entrepreneurial career began at age 9. Like Hot Chicken Takeover, that venture was a B2C food-service operation. Unlike his current endeavor, which took on its first minority investors in 2016, his grade-school scheme was heavily subsidized.

DeLoss and his pals had a simple-yet-innovative business model: Loot their family pantries, load the goods into their Radio Flyers, then sell the refreshments to construction workers building houses in their neighborhood.

“It lasted until our moms and dads realized we were running a business with no overhead,” DeLoss says with a laugh. After graduating in 2006 from Capital University, where he studied business and communications, DeLoss went straight into investment banking.

He wasn't built for a career in finance. DeLoss had an entrepreneurial drive and a mind to make his community a better place. “I always wanted to be able to influence (people's lives) more than just one job could afford me.”

So 10 years ago he pivoted and started Fresh Box Catering for Lutheran Social Services, providing employment and job-skills training to people affected by poverty, homelessness or employment barriers. It was DeLoss' introduction to the nascent social-enterprise movement.

“I was really taken by the impact a job could have. I've been on a 10-year adventure to find what could create more jobs,” says DeLoss. “Hot Chicken was actually not created out of a passion for chicken but out of my passion to become an employer again.”

Today, DeLoss influences more than the tastes of Columbus diners. Hot Chicken's HR model has the potential to revolutionize the way restaurants and other entry-level employers approach hiring and retention. The company's social mission focuses on recruiting and hiring employees who are rebuilding their lives after incarceration, homelessness or other challenges.

“We hire with an interviewing and HR strategy that really focuses on candidates' orientation to the future,” says DeLoss.

He's becoming an expert in what his target employees need, personally and professionally, to survive and thrive in the workplace. “We really see our workforce and HR strategy as our greatest asset.”

Hot Chicken Takeover's growth speaks to the commitment of its employees and the support the business has won in Columbus. What started as a pop-up restaurant in Olde Towne East soon moved into a permanent location at North Market and added a food truck. Its signature spicy fried chicken—served with pickles, a slice of white bread and a side of slaw—often sells out, even though the restaurant is open just four hours a day. Customers line up before the doors open at 11 a.m.; employees and the restaurant's website offer updates as white meat, dark meat, drumsticks and wings run out for the day.

Scaling the Hot Chicken mission was DeLoss' motivation for taking on minority investors. The Clintonville location is scheduled to open in May at 4203 N. High St., with the Easton restaurant aiming for a November opening.

That third site is expected to feature high-tech service upgrades. Roaming employees will take drink orders on iPads and process credit card payments instantly. But that's window dressing compared to the core HR innovations of Hot Chicken Takeover.

The business is so strong because turnover is so low, DeLoss says. Hot Chicken Takeover has a 70 percent employee retention rate, more than twice the industry average. It's a sign the company is “cracking a nut” in solving the expensive turnover that plagues restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality industry.

Hot Chicken Takeover provides unique benefit programs to address the problems its employees face. Providing assistance on critical issues like reliable transportation, financial literacy, housing and mental well-being adds stability to employees' lives. In turn, they become more stable and ambitious members of the workforce.

“I became incredibly passionate about figuring out how to maximize the employment contract for our employment circle,” says DeLoss, who thinks other employers are beginning to ask the same questions about supporting and developing their entry-level workers. “Our economy in Ohio has been built around these types of industries (restaurants and retail), and 100 to 200 percent turnover is not inexpensive.”

DeLoss has a relationship with Kemba Financial Credit Union that helps employees open traditional banking accounts, which steers them away from the check cashers and predatory lenders that so often trap the economically disenfranchised. Hot Chicken provides cash advances, one-on-one financial coaching and counseling sessions. Its Matched Milestone Program functions like a 401(k); a 2-to-1 fund match allows employees to address more immediate problems that threaten their livelihood, such as housing and transportation.

“When I started to build relationships with people of different experience, that was the best education I've received,” says DeLoss. Employee referrals are Hot Chicken Takeover's main hiring pipeline. DeLoss also receives referrals from Kindway, a nonprofit based in Reynoldsburg that helps incarcerated men and women navigate the transition when they re-enter their communities after release.

Most men and women leaving prison face three key challenges: housing, transportation and employment, says Thomas Deuber, Kindway's director of job development. Finding employment is the critical challenge that's hardest for former offenders to overcome.

DeLoss has offered more than jobs to the dozen men and women he's

hired through Kindway, says Deuber. “He offers an invitation to join a

community where they will be valued and supported while they are also

gainfully employed. ... Joe told me that he doesn't view people through

their past but in light of their potential.Such a view gives our participants an incredible sense of value and dignity.”

DeLoss also works with key players who are bringing Columbus' economically disenfranchised back into the workforce. He has worked with Columbus State Community College President David Harrison on creative job training programs and has shared his experience with the city of Columbus.

“We really admire Mayor (Andrew) Ginther and have been supportive of the city's workforce development efforts,” says DeLoss. “If you're trying to tackle issues that have been there (for) people's whole lives, it's not a quick thing.”

Kitty McConnell French is a freelance writer.