Operators John Filipiak and Nabil Asad know the secret to lose weight—just open a Nashville hot chicken restaurant.
The duo planned to slowly launch Crimson Coward Nashville Hot Chicken in Woodbridge, Virginia, after the new year. But as they both recall, there was nothing soft about that opening.
“We have been overwhelmingly supported by the community,” Filipiak says. “ … We were there from open to close for that first month and you would turn around and every seat is taken. Every inch of the concrete floor, people were there. The community has just been great.”
The emerging fast casual, now with six units, was founded in 2019 by Ali Hijazi in California. Four are in the Golden State and one is in Texas. Filipiak and Asad, managing partners of Restaurant Management Group—Mid Atlantic, opened the first Crimson Coward on the East Coast.
Asad came across the chain at the behest of family and friends who live on the West Coast. It took about a year for him to try the food. Once he did, he was able to convince Filipiak in four months. To Asad, the biggest point of differentiation was simplicity of operations.
Crimson Coward sells sandwiches, tenders, wings, and boneless breast meat made to order. Wait times are typically 12-15 minutes, but the restaurant can batch cook during peak periods so no one is waiting longer. The cheese sauce, Mac and cheese, coleslaw, ranch dressing, Crimson sauce, and more are made fresh daily. The chicken comes already marinated, which helps with the store’s labor percentage. The only product that’s frozen is French fries. Compared to other fast casuals that have hundreds of SKUs, Crimson Coward only has 70. Asad was also attracted to the chain’s open kitchen layout. He and Filipiak refer to the front counter stools as the “lucky seven seats” because people have a front-row view of employees cooking meals.
Filipiak and Asad believe in the concept so much that they signed an agreement to open more than 25 restaurants in the DMV market in the next four years. Overall, Crimson Coward has a goal of reaching 200-plus stores by 2027.
Although the Woodbridge unit is thousands of miles away from the next-closest Crimson Coward, the operators had little doubt the restaurant would succeed. Firstly, they have the requisite history. Filipiak has 25 years of experience developing more than 1,200 Subway franchises, and Asad has spent more than 25 years operating multiple franchise concepts around the U.S. Additionally, the industry veterans—Filipiak living in Maryland and Asad in Virginia—know the market in terms of real estate, labor availability, and competition. Both have seen hot chicken concepts find success. That includes national chain Dave’s Hot Chicken.
“We knew that this concept was going to be viable here,” Filipiak says. “People were already looking at it and there were already some that were up and operating and we saw the type of business that they were doing. And we’ve just compared ourselves to what they were offering, but we felt pretty confident that we would be able to be successful in this marketplace.”
While Asad worked with local government officials and the contractor to get through the permitting process, Filipiak and the franchisor developed relationships with distributors. Admittedly, there were hiccups along the way. One challenge was locating a purveyor for Crimson Coward’s chicken, which is Halal, hand-cut to specifications, and tumbled with proprietary seasoning. Not many companies could meet all the necessary qualifications, but the operators were able to strike a deal with a local company that Asad partnered with previously. They went with US Foods as a national distributor.
“The franchisor has been great in working with US Foods and the distribution centers that they have in place now because Crimson Coward is in Texas and here in Virginia and we will be up in Michigan soon,” Filipiak says. “So the US food distribution centers in each are working together to make sure that they carry all of our products. And as we look to go into different marketplaces, we’re going to have to make sure that we have the distribution ready to go. Not only for our dry goods but also for our chicken product as well.”
To raise awareness, Filipiak and Asad tapped an advertising agency they’ve used in the past and placed decals on windows to let customers know what Crimson Coward offers. The company targets ages 18-40, so much of the promotional materials are centered around Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. The 1,500-square-foot restaurant is sandwiched between a dental office and Starbucks, and Filipiak says the amount of traffic heading into the coffee giant naturally drew attention to the hot chicken concept. The brand has a higher average check, comparable to Chipotle or Five Guys, but that hasn’t deterred guests. In the first few months traffic and customer frequency have exceeded expectations.
The restaurant was so busy initially that online ordering wasn’t turned on until a few weeks after opening. Third-party delivery through DoorDash wasn’t available until roughly two weeks ago. Thus far, online ordering mixes about 25 percent. There’s also a self-ordering kiosk inside the store.
“I have not had to work in 25 years making food for customers, but I had to do that,” Asad says. “But we were able to put a team together. We had some difficulties in the first week and part of the second week because of how much more business we had. But after that, we got things together and right now we’re still doing the volume.”
Future stores will be within 1,300-1,800 square feet, and a couple of them may even be drive-thru. By next summer, they expect eight locations to be open in their market.
The developers bring different strengths to the table and sometimes disagree on strategy, but there’s one philosophy tying them together—profitability of the franchisee is the No. 1 priority.
“And that’s the one thing that we’ve had discussions with any potential individuals that we’ve been working with that joins Crimson Coward,” Filipiak says. “I just totally believe that we would rather be the devil’s advocate. When you’re looking at growing, you get excited about it and you’re ready to jump into it. But we really want to make sure that every base is covered. So we want to make sure that everything is thought of by a potential franchisee that joins Crimson Coward and to make sure that’s the right decision for them and their family because we want everyone to be successful.”