The NBA came to a screeching halt March 11 when it was discovered a player tested positive for COVID-19.
Each of the 30 teams faced the same issue—how can their organization create an additional form of revenue in the absence of live entertainment? Even when the game returned to a bubble in Orlando, Florida, stadiums did not.
Justin Green, vice president of hospitality for the Milwaukee Bucks, says the team knew sports would look different and would come back at a pace out of its control. But what it could direct was other forms of business, such as the food and beverage industry, which saw big gains in off-premises sales.
The group proceeded to initiate an analysis to determine the demand in downtown Milwaukee. Without big-time players such as Chick-fil-A or Raising Cane’s, the team realized the chicken category was there for the taking.
“We were able to really say ‘OK, we're going to take that space,’” Green says. “‘We’re going to own that space, and we're going to do it better than we believe they do, as well.’”
The Bucks entered the market with Cream City Cluckery, a virtual chicken tender brand open for pickup and delivery.
The restaurant opened July 9 after just 30 days of preparation. But don’t mistake the swiftness of the launch for a venture that was slapped together haphazardly—quite the opposite, Green explains.
After analyzing the local competition, the next step was building a simple menu that could go live quickly. The process was led by Senior Executive Chef Kenneth Hardiman, who went through several iterations of breading, size, and sauces. The team held tastings and continued to narrow choices. Within the first 12 days, the brand knew what the original recipes would be.
“We focus on only chicken tenders,” Green says. “We have some sides, and that’s it. We're not trying to do wings. We're not trying to do bone-in chicken or anything like that. We focus just on tenders, and everything is scratch. Nothing is freezed in a fryer. We're doing everything—all of our sauces, all of our breading processes—scratch-made. Once we had that, we had everything costed out. We knew that it could be profitable. We started to build the brand around it. And we talked about the fact that we're doing tenders. And our tagline is ‘It's Cream City Cluckery, Tenders Only.’ We don't worry about anything else.”
After crystalizing the menu, the Bucks created brand awareness. The organization leveraged its in-house marketing team to develop a website and craft messages for social media. Green says they also utilized the communications department, food bloggers, and influencers to build anticipation.
When Cream City first opened, the restaurant sold out of products. So the brand increased its inventory from 300 pounds of chicken to 400 pounds. That wasn’t enough either. The brand surpassed its month-long revenue goal in the first week. The concept achieved a profit in its first month of business, and has continued to do so in the following weeks.
It started in the prep kitchen of another restaurant the Bucks own called The Mecca Sports Bar & Grill, but Cream City quickly outgrew the location. Now it’s in the entertainment district—across from the arena—with a larger kitchen and more fryer space. Green says part of the reason why Cream City went to market so fast is because the brand didn’t need new equipment and had little difficulty finding extra space.
“Now being a few months in, we've got the process down,” Green says. “We know how much we need to have prepped and ready to go, and the brand is just continuing to perform very well. The online reviews, they could be great. They can also hurt you. People tend to want to review you badly when you first open. And it's just something that you know people do. And we’ve kept four-plus stars across every online review platform that exists—whether it's Google or Yelp—for all of the different delivery platforms that we use. We are very highly rated, and the quality of our product speaks for itself. So we've been really happy with that, as well.”
The brand has opted to stick with its simple menu with minor upgrades. For example, Cream City added grilled tenders as an alternative to fried items and onboarded buffalo-style tenders that are marinated in a buffalo mix for 24 hours. The menu also includes a chicken sandwich, beer-battered cod, mac and cheese, tater tots, biscuits, desserts, and beer.
Green says they want Cream City to live on its own, apart from the Bucks organization.
“When the arena opens back up, will you see Cream City Cluckery chicken tenders in the arena? I would say yes,” Green says. “We will definitely use that to get it in front of more people. So I would say we're going to use the power of the brand, but we're going to keep the brand separate, if that makes sense.”
Given the massive success, Green says the next phase is figuring out what the growth trajectory looks like. As he notes, the Bucks aren’t an organization that just hones in on basketball.
“We have real estate ventures, we have other development pieces, and this is going to become a brand that we start to grow on its own,” he says.
So, the question becomes, do the Bucks look at opening more ghost kitchens and enter new trade areas with a lower risk? Do they open brick-and-mortar locations?
The fact that those possibilities exist exceeds expectations. What started as another revenue stream during an unpredictable crisis has become a brand capable of spreading across the country, Green says.
“If the brand takes off like it has here, do you then say, ‘OK, we've proven ourselves with lower risk',” Green says. “‘Now we're going to look at doing brick-and-mortar in this location, as well.’ I think the capabilities of ghost kitchens allow us to do that and the ability to have conversations with people about unused space right now during the pandemic. It's unfortunate that so many places have had to close down, but it opens up opportunities for others. I think that there are probably kitchens throughout the state, throughout the country, that can be used for ghost kitchens for short periods of time, and then possibly looking to launch into a brand that has more brick-and-mortars in different locations.”