Halpern says Big Chicken doesn’t have a specific demographic, and that’s rang true at both brick-and-mortar stores and the cruise line location. A good portion of customers associate O’Neal with his basketball career and will try the brand based off of that knowledge, but Halpern estimates a majority of O’Neal’s followers on social media—more than 50 percent or so under the age of 24—never saw him play basketball. When Halpern stops by for lunch, he sees groups of friends, families, and business colleagues.
“We're seeing people come in for different reasons, but they're ultimately coming in for the same basic reason,” Halpern says. “They're coming in the first time because they want to feel that authenticity to Shaquille and they keep coming back because it's a fast-food concept that was built by two top-notch chefs. So the food is really strong and some of the menu items we’ll surprise and delight you. I've never seen macaroni and cheese on top of the chicken sandwich until I started working with Big Chicken.”
Seven restaurants are in the development pipeline, including two more outlets on Carnival Cruise ships and a handful of spots in sports arenas, like the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, the UBS Arena in New York, and the Moody Center in Austin.
To support growth, Big Chicken hired Wetzel’s Pretzels and Jamba veteran Dede Hilovsky to build a training program similar to a 500-unit chain, Halpern says. The company has also partnered with Marci Rude, a growth specialist with experience at Thirsty Lion, Kona Grill, and P.F. Chang’s. The CEO expects Rude to be instrumental in advising franchisees to make the best real estate decisions. Each store will be between 2,400 to 2,800 square feet, with a dine-in to off-premises mix that will hover around 70 percent to 30 percent. Big Chicken is open to both suburban and urban locales; the main key is access to daytime traffic, since lunch is such a strong daypart.
The fast casual prefers multi-unit franchisees—with either traditional or nontraditional restaurant experience—that can help build hubs across the U.S. and internationally.
“Shaquille has one of the highest popularity ratings on the globe among major celebrities, and as a result, interest comes from everywhere,” the CEO says. “Then it becomes just the age-old question of, do we have the capability to do it based on where it's going.”
“He's a very busy guy, has a lot going on, but he always finds time for Big Chicken,” he adds. “I think he really enjoys having a concept that's his own while simultaneously being able to partner with really great companies like Papa John's and Krispy Kreme on developing their companies, as well.”
Brick-and-mortar will be the main source of expansion, but the chain does have a budding partnership with Ghost Kitchen Brands to open multiple ghost kitchens throughout New York. One recently opened inside a Walmart in Rochester, New York.
Halpern anticipates entering four markets in Upstate New York by the end of September. The executive acknowledges that without the partnership, it would’ve taken quite some time to bring in a franchisee to represent those areas, and even if the chain did find an operator, there still would be much space with which to operate. The CEO views the Ghost Kitchen Brands relationship as a way to drive trial with Walmart consumers as the restaurant leverages brick-and-mortar stores to fuel frequency and loyalty.
More growth announcements are scheduled to be released in the next few months, according to Halpern. Busy times are ahead, but every level of operations is prepared.
“The beautiful thing about the way the company’s set up and the way our ownership group operates is we’re built for speed, but speed with the right infrastructure and backbone behind it,” Halpern says.