Hot Concept! Bill Phelps is at it again with Dave's Hot Chicken
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Hot Concept! Bill Phelps is at it again with Dave's Hot Chicken

Hot Concept! Bill Phelps is at it again with Dave's Hot Chicken

Name: Bill Phelps

Title: CEO

Company: Dave’s Hot Chicken Franchise Co.

Units: 30-plus

Age: 66

Years in franchising: 26

Years in current position: 3

Bill Phelps is doing it again.

The 66-year-old was co-founder and CEO of Wetzel’s Pretzels, where he helped grow the brand to more than 350 locations. He was also an early investor in Blaze Pizza and a key part of that brand’s rapid growth. Now he’s at the helm of current industry darling Dave’s Hot Chicken and the brand’s future is, well, on fire.

  “The concept is amazing,” says Phelps, who has served as CEO of the Los Angeles-based brand since 2019. 

Whether he is describing the brand founders’ story, its spicy products, or its savvy marketing initiatives, Phelps is a big believer in the Nashville-style hot chicken brand. He’s also happy to have word-of-mouth support for the brand spreading like wildfire and investors who include rapper Drake, actor Samuel L. Jackson, and Boston Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner.

It’s been a Hollywood-like story for chef Dave Kopushyan and three of his friends who began selling hot chicken in a parking lot pop-up in East Hollywood, California in May 2017. Today Dave’s Hot Chicken has grown to more than 30 restaurants since beginning franchising in 2019. And when a new shop opens its doors, it’s not uncommon for fans to line up for hours.

Though many of the brand’s locations are in California, Phelps and his team have high hopes for growth and expansion in the coming years. In fact, the brand has already sold the rights to more than 400 franchise locations in the U.S. and Canada.

Then there’s the Covid factor. “Online sales were just 9% of our sales before March 1, 2020,” he says. “That grew to 63% of sales at the end of April 2021.”

While Dave’s Hot Chicken is known for its rabid fans, perhaps there are no bigger fans than its franchisees, says Phelps, who describes them as “bullish.” How often do you hear a CEO say, “The hardest part of my job today is turning down existing franchisees who want more territory.”? 

LEADERSHIP

What is your role as CEO? Hiring experienced and wonderful people and giving them the freedom to do incredible work.

How has Covid-19 affected the way you have led your brand? I am stunned by the fact that our business has thrived through Covid, going from 9% of sales online before March 1, 2020 to 63% of sales at the end of April 2021.

Describe your leadership style: To have fun while letting people perform at the highest level.

What has inspired your leadership style? My dad and my father-in-law. 

What is your biggest leadership challenge? Ensuring a disciplined process throughout every aspect of the business.

How do you transmit your culture from your office to front-line employees? I try to do that through operations people I hire who are very much front line–oriented. I also speak directly with all the general managers every single month.

How can a CEO help their CMO develop and grow? The CMO job is probably the hardest job in the restaurant industry because of the changing media and advances in technology. It is a collaborative process of bringing experienced marketing and advertising people to review objectives, strategies, and best practices.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership: an MBA school or OTJ? There is no question. It is OTJ training. The most important thing young people have to learn is how to hire, train, and motivate people at work.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person? How do you make tough decisions? A collaborative approach with my leadership team, then we make the call!

Do you want to be liked or respected? I want to be respected.

Advice to CEO wannabes: Learn multiple aspects of the business in your early years and be incredibly curious about every aspect of the business

MANAGEMENT

Describe your management style: Set clear direction and goals and let people perform to the best of their capabilities

What does your management team look like? They look nothing like me.

How does your management team help you lead? We have an incredible collaborative process, and we push each other to make decisions based on rigorous analysis.

Favorite management gurus: Richard Branson. 

What makes you say, “Yes, now that’s why I do what I do!”? Seeing how productive people are when I give them a lot of leeway in their decision-making.

OPERATIONS

What trends are you seeing with consumer spending habits in your stores? Consumers have more money than ever, and people are paying for premium quality and convenience. 

How is the economy driving consumer behavior in your system? Consumers have substantial disposable income today, and our business is exceeding all expectations.

What are you expecting from your market in the next 12 months? Business is growing beyond our wildest dreams. While I expect to have significant challenges, I believe that our team is incredible and will meet all those challenges.

Are your franchisees bullish or bearish about growth and adding units? Our franchisees are extremely bullish. The hardest part of my job today is turning down existing franchisees who want more territory.

Are commodity/supplies costs any cause for concern in your system? Commodities and supplies are a bigger challenge today than ever. The supply chain issues will take 6 months to a year to return to a normal level of service.

How are political/global issues affecting the market and your brand? That question is above my pay grade.

PERSONAL 

What time do you like to be at your desk? 6 a.m.

Exercise in the morning? Wine with lunch? Yes and NO.

Do you socialize with your team after work or outside the office? Yes.

Last two books read: by Walter Isaacson and by Phil Knight.

What technology do you take on the road? iPhone and iPad.

How do you relax/balance life and work? I am a golf addict. I work hard and play harder.

Favorite vacation destination: Big Island of Hawaii.

Favorite occasions to send employees notes: I don’t send notes.

Favorite company product/service: Handel’s Homemade Ice Cream.

BOTTOM LINE

What are your long-term goals for the company? To create something incredible that employees, franchisees, and guests love being a part of.

How has the economy changed your goals for your company? We have significantly raised our expectations for where we can take this business.

Where can capital be found these days? Money is more available today from more sources than any time in history, whether it is from angel investors, private equity, or public markets.

How do you measure success? Look at personnel turnover in an organization. People do not leave great organizations.

What has been your greatest success? Creating Wetzel’s Pretzels with Rick Wetzel.

Any regrets? No time for regrets. We move forward.

What can we expect from your company in the next 12 to 18 months? We want to create something that will blow people’s minds.

Published: December 13th, 2021

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