I grew up thinking I was going to be a professional drummer and travel the world. My journey to the restaurant industry began in high school when I started working in restaurants. It was something I was really fond of, so I continued to do that all through college.

Even after I had a degree in economics and advertising, what I enjoyed most was working with food. That’s when I thought to start a chicken concept. Chicken fingers were on every casual-dining menu as an appetizer, but no one was really focusing on it as an entrée item. There was an opportunity to focus on it as an entrée and build a brand around that.

I told my best friend from high school about this idea and he said, “I’ll be your partner. I’ll put in half the money.” At that time the only asset I had was my drum set, so I sold it for $8,000. Between the cash we put in and the money off credit cards, we opened our very first store for around $28,000. I think a lot of it had to do with the right place, the right time, the right concept. I had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

There’s a huge proliferation of Southern food and different kinds of styles all across our nation now that you didn’t have 30 years ago. I think that’s really helped brands like us grow and have more acceptability as we go into new markets. Comfort food to me has become very vogue. By year-end we’ll open 40 new stores; our goal for next year is 60-plus, and then more than 100 stores in 2020. It will be our 30th year in business, and during that year we should surpass 1,000 open stores.

Some people ask me, “Why do you still go to the office every day?” My answer is that I’m still as passionate today as I was the day I started. I still get nervous when a new licensee opens a store because I truly want them to be successful. My goal is to help as many people become independently wealthy as I can. Here’s the perfect vehicle to not only do that, but to also touch the lives of other people and make a difference in the communities we serve. That’s my driving force.

What was your first job?

My first job was on a chicken farm when I was 13 years old. It’s ironic that I’m in this business today.

What’s your favorite menu item at Zaxby’s?

The Kickin Chicken Sandwich.

What’s your favorite type of food outside of fried chicken?

That’s a hard question. There’s so much variety out there today and so much creativity that it’s really hard to pinpoint one thing. I like to try everything, and I have certain things I love about each different segment or type of food you can have.

Who has inspired you as a leader?

I would say my dad. When I was in my mid-teens, he started his own floor covering and lighting fixture business. Without realizing it, I was learning about being an entrepreneur just from watching my dad and being around him.

What are some of your interests outside of the business?

I love spending time with my kids. As you get older, you get a lot of joy out of doing things with your kids and watching them do the things they enjoy. When I’m not doing that, probably my favorite thing to do is play golf, and I love snow skiing in the wintertime.

Start to Finish: What Inspires Execs, Story, Zaxby's