Shaquille O’Neal is no restaurant rookie. He’s had a role in the Krispy Kreme and Five Guys franchises, and even a fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles. Not to mention, a headline-grabbing appointment in 2019 to Papa Johns’ board, which included investing in nine Atlanta locations and helping one of the biggest comebacks in the industry. industry in recent memory.
But it was different. O’Neal says he’s received frequent calls to become a chicken franchise over the years that “just didn’t feel right.”
“The chicken was too personal for me,” says the 7-foot-1 NBA Hall of Famer and ‘Inside the NBA’ analyst.
O’Neal’s business partner Perry Rogers, CEO and founder of PRP, a sports management and business consulting firm that features O’Neal and Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum among others, introduced him to Matt Silverman and Matt Piekarski. “The two Matts”, as O’Neal calls them, joined him on the ground floor of what became Big Chicken – a growing fast casual.
Silverman and Piekarski, upscale chefs by practice, run JRS Hospitality, a Las Vegas-based events and catering company known for its parties, private dinners and corporate meetings. The Big Chicken Group’s other partner, Authentic Brands Group, is a brand development, marketing and entertainment company with likeness rights to Sports Illustrated, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Forever 2021, Van Heusen and Aeropostale.
And this year, with Big Chicken poised to scale, O’Neal and his partners tapped Josh Halpern, who has worked at companies including FIFCO, Anheuser-Busch, Clorox and P&G, to lead as CEO. “Now we’re writing our own story,” O’Neal said.
Again, though, it comes down to logging in. O’Neal says opening a chicken concept was something he always hovered around. “A lot of my childhood memories revolved around my family’s dinner table, and chicken was on the menu almost every night,” he says.
You see the sentiment spreading through Big Chicken’s marketing and menu materials. The items are named after important people in O’Neal’s life, such as Lucille’s Mac N’ Cheese (in honor of her mother). There’s a cookie with the circumference of an NBA basketball, and O’Neal’s fingerprints are printed by the soda machine. Each store even carries a chair clearly designed for someone over 7 feet tall.
“Then you have the fact that we really deliver on our promise of ‘Big Flavor, Big Food, and Big Fun,’ with a 5-ounce chicken breast for all of our sandwiches and the big cookie you mentioned,” O’ says. Neal. .
Additionally, units air the brand’s Facebook Live reality show on a TV in the restaurant. “More subtle, however, is how much the menu is built around my love for this food,” he adds. “I love banana pudding, so the Matts made an ice cream sandwich based on my favorite and our MDE [most dominant ever] is the most basic sandwich because I wanted the chicken, not what’s on it, to be the most dominant ever.
O’Neal shares a story about what was a popular draw – the “Charles Barkley” chicken sandwich (mac and cheese, crispy fried onion rings, roasted garlic barbecue aioli), named after the member of O’Neal’s Hall of Fame and broadcast partner. They served the first version to Barkley himself on TNT. “We were going to call him the ‘Barles Charkley’ and he told us he loved the sandwich and would rather we used his real name,” says O’Neal. “It’s a beast of a sandwich with macaroni and cheese and onion straws on top, but it’s a little different…just like Charles.”
Striking a balance between authentic and whimsical took deliberate steps. “We do a good job of aligning the Big Chicken brand values with my personal core values: fun and accessibility,” says O’Neal. “And the fact that I own it makes it particularly authentic. I know it doesn’t have to be all about me, I’m here to help the team when needed. I’m not above calling a supplier to get a product or a franchisee that’s on the goal line. I’ve been there to kick off all of our non-traditional sites. “I never wanted it to be a sanctuary for me,” he continues. “Just a place where people can have a chicken sandwich that feels like home.”
Since launching in 2018, Big Chicken has opened on Carnival cruise ships and in sports arenas (most recently Seattle’s new Climate Pledge Arena and New York Islanders’ UBS Arena). In February, there were 10 total locations, including physical stores in Los Angeles and Las Vegas and through a partnership with Ghost Kitchen Brands in Rochester, New York. As of fall 2021, seven restaurants were in the works, including a location slated to open at the Moody Center in Austin, Texas.
Big Chicken unveiled its strategic franchise program in August. It targets multi-unit investors and cities around the world.
“Like I said, given my love of fried chicken, it had to be a brand that was personal to me,” O’Neal says. “As a franchisee, I also know how personal their business is to them. Franchisees invest in the franchisor because they believe in the system and they want good partners. I always tell our CEO, Josh, “If you hurt a franchisee, you hurt me. Because I was a franchisee long before that.
O’Neal thinks Big Chicken can act quickly. As Rogers told him, “plan your work, then work the plan.”
Big Chicken popped up in the Middle East behind a Formula 1 race and recently boarded its second cruise ship. “It’s a great way to get a lot of people to try foods,” says O’Neal.
And he thinks that will get Big Chicken where it needs to go. With O’Neal’s active participation, it took Piekarski and Silverman six months to get the breading right. As for drinks, the culinary team used over 50 gallons of milkshake mix before they found the right blend of Southern vanilla. Simply, Big Chicken is so much more than a company with a famous name attached to it.
O’Neal isn’t the only NBA star in the food ranks either, with former Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem having shadow kitchen partnerships with the Florida-based WingHouse Bar & Grill in December, and LeBron James who is famous as an investor in Blaze Pizza. .
“Plenty of room for all of us and I wish all my former teammates the best,” he said. “But they have to know that they can’t play with the MDE.