Royals Hot Chicken is Perfect Pitch winner at the 2019 Fast Casual Executive Summit

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Louisville, Kentucky brand, Royals Hot Chicken managed to burn up the competition as the winner of this year's Perfect Pitch — the first in the Fast Casual Executive Summit's history to not only feature a $5,000 prize, but a hefty half-dozen emerging brands.

Royal Hot Chicken's Ryan Rogers (center) receives a check from Perfect Pitch Sponsor Henny Penny's Jason Moles (right) and Fast Casual's Cherryh Cansler (left) at the Fast Casual Executive Summit.

I've known for some time now that we've had something really special in Louisville, Kentucky with Royals Hot Chicken, but I hadn't really had the opportunity to share that with the broader market yet.

When it comes to chicken, Louisville, Kentucky — a.k.a. that string-tie-wearing white-haired colonel's brand's home base — is about as close to Ground Zero as you can get. It's safe to say then, that it takes a restaurateur with a particularly copious amount of courage, not to mention, crazy-good food to enter that market with a chicken brand of its own.

Such was the case though for the winner of this year's Perfect Pitch — the first in the Fast Casual Executive Summit's history to not only feature a $5,000 prize, but a hefty half-dozen emerging brands. But Louisville's Royals Hot Chicken knocked out its competitor brands at the October Austin, Texas summit, by setting Louisvillians and the Austin audience "on fire" with its recipe of fun + heat + atmosphere.

With a relatively stripped-down and simple menu of fried chicken variations (tenders, poppers, fried chicken sandwiches), Royals' loving Louisville fans are often lined up around the block to get in and get their hands on the brand's special blend of spice, according to the founder of Royals parent company, HiCotton Hopitality CEO Ryan Rogers.

But even when those lines force hot chicken addicts to wait patiently for a seat inside the old penny theater near downtown Louisville that houses the flagship store for a half-hour or more, Rogers told the audience that manage the on-site team manages to also make that part of the Royals "treatment."

"Standing in line really sucks and really, if you stand in line for 30 minutes ... it kind of sets a negative tone for that restaurant, so we've tried to activate that line experience and make it a little bit more fun," he said during his presentation at the Perfect Pitch this month, in response to a question about lessons learned from moderating panel member, Massimo De Marco, founder and chief concept officer, Kitchen United.

"So we'll come through with a tablet and sell shakes or wine and beer ... and some days when it's hot outside, we roll up a little snow-cone machine and give out pickle juice snowcones to customers."

Nonetheless, Rogers admitted that he doesn't like the lines, overall. That's why he said they've taught him a lesson about making adaptations to reduce that wait in the second location of the brand opening in South Louisville shortly. Though he said he also learned of himself that he never wants to make adjustments that might sacrifice customer interaction to improve that wait.

"One thing to think about really too, is that a line in Austin or New York City is different than a line in Louisville, Kentucky, where the only time they've stood in line is maybe at an Olive Garden when it's packed at 7:30. ... We've just never stood in a line before.

"So one of the things I learned is that I don't really want (customers) to stand in line for more than five minutes, so I created a second make-line. But I never want to have like a kiosk experience because I want that engagement with the customer. That friction-less kiosk experience where the food shows up at my table - meh," he said, expressing his overall dissatisfaction with that operational approach.

"I mean I really think bars and restaurants are going to be the last bastions of human engagement."

Burn, baby burn ... in a good way
That's not to say that everything at Royals is a pleasant experience. After all, Ryan himself relayed that the brand's most searingly hot blend of fried chicken — dubbed "Gonzo" on the scale from no heat to Gonzo that the brand offers — is, as he put it, just "a really miserable experience."

To give the summit audience a mental picture, Rogers explained that the Gonzo fried chicken is made with the help of the world's three hottest chili peppers. But even there, the restaurant team tries to make the pain "an experience" with support for the courageous (or maybe slightly naïve) who dare to order the Gonzo, equipping the partaker with rubber gloves, a glass of milk and even a heap of ice cream, should the situation demand.

Still, most who visit the East Market street store, stick somewhere in the mid-range with their spice-level, Rogers said, and — judging by the brand's lines and sales (expected to be $3.2 million from the single store location) — that is just hot enough to make Royals what Rogers proudly calls the "best fried chicken in the land of fried chicken."

Pioneering a path forward for 'peak-heat' chicken
To continue on that same upward trend, Rogers said he's already refined the menu to the absolute star attractions, while the brand's second location gets ready to open. But as the brand starts to grow in earnest, another executive on the panel — former Raising Cane's CEO and current Suzy's Swirl chief executive, Kathleen Wood — wanted to know how the brand planned to maintain its level of quality with frequently sensitive chicken product, at its core as it scales up.

"We have very specific procedures ... and now we're not focusing on a bone-in product, which is allowing us to work with a faster and fresher product," Rogers said. "And we've really been working through a lot of that stuff before saying, 'Let's open five locations and then figure it out,'"

The prize money and prestige that comes with the title of this Fast Casual Executive Summit Perfect Pitch winner certainly is a good start to the brand's growth. But then, when you ask Rogers about his feelings about the recognition, he shows the kind of confidence in the brand that likely was key to its current success.

"I've known for some time now that we've had something really special in Louisville, Kentucky with Royals Hot Chicken, but I hadn't really had the opportunity to share that with the broader market yet," he said in an interview after the contest. "The response and level of excitement I received from the Fast Casual summit attendees following our pitch was a great endorsement that tells me that we're going in the right direction as we continue to grow this brand."

Oh, and if you're wondering how Rogers "invested" that prize money, he admits, that in this case, it was time to reward the founder.

"Some of the winnings went to a great pair of cowboy boots to memorialize the time spent in Austin," he said, adding, "... and a few fancy dinners that week."

More information about the 2019 Fast Casual Executive Summit Perfect Pitch

The three restaurant executives on this year's panel of brand questioners include:

  • Alliance Consumer Growth founder and Managing Partner Josh Goldin.
  • Kitchen United Founder & Chief Concept Officer Massimo De Marco.
  • Suzy's Swirl founder and CEO Kathleen Wood.

The five other brands that also turned in stellar Perfect Pitch presentations this year include:

  • Roll Play in Vienna, Virginia, represented by Di Dang.
  • Karma Farm in Atlanta, represented by Scott Wilder.
  • Due' Cucina Italiana in Seattle, represented by Davide Macchi.
  • Sweet Carrot in Columbus, Ohio, represented by Angela Petro.
  • Puli-Ra in Austin, Texas, represented by Deepa Shridhar.

About Networld Media Group

Founded in 2000, Networld Media Group is a leading business-to-business (B2B) global media communications company specializing in digital media, associations and events in the mobile, self-service, digital signage, retail, food service and financial services industries. Online properties include ATMmarketplace.com, BlockchainTechNews.com, DigitalSignageToday.com, FastCasual.com, FoodTruckOperator.com, KioskMarketplace.com, MobilePaymentsToday.com, PizzaMarketplace.com, QSRweb.com, RetailCustomerExperience.com and BiblicalLeadership.com. Networld event properties include the Fast Casual Executive Summit, Interactive Customer Experience Summit, Bank Customer Experience Summit and the Restaurant Franchising & Innovation Summit. Networld also operates the ICX Association. BOOM! Creative, provides clients with digital creative, custom media and brand collateral. Its newest offering, World of Money, is a daily e-newsletter that provides a fun and informative look at the trends, technologies, and ideas shaping the future of money and payments.

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