Tastemaker: Joe DeLoss, head fryer, Hot Chicken Takeover

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

Why he's a Tastemaker: Take one look at the line of hungry customers that hasn't let up in more than a year, and it's clear this town has hot chicken fever. And it's all because of Joe DeLoss-a social entrepreneur and community activist who made Nashville-style chicken on a whim, then opened a takeout window in Olde Towne East. Now, Hot Chicken Takeover has roots in the North Market, a food truck, a presence at Columbus Crew SC home games and more locations on the way. But it's not just the four levels of spicy chicken, free sweet tea and banana pudding we adore; it's DeLoss' social mission. He created this craze with the goal to employ those considered unemployable. And that's exactly what he's done.

The experience: You can expect a few things at Hot Chicken Takeover: a line, fried chicken, communal tables and greetings from at least four members of the staff. "One of our mentors identified our customer service model as a surprising level of service," DeLoss says. "We are, very intentionally, going to provide you with great service." There are no scripts. Instead, employees are told to always be hospitable, kind and supportive.

Tip generously: Gratuity dollars at Hot Chicken Takeover go straight toward staff development-financial, household and professional. For example, the company offers budgeting and financial planning and short-term loans. Through Church and Community Development for All People, Hot Chicken has guaranteed the lease of a three-bedroom South Side home that its employees can rent. DeLoss has also partnered with Columbus State Community College's FastPath program, which provides certification (like ServSafe food safety and sanitation) for entry-level jobs. Employees also get paid days off and an average wage of more than $10 an hour. All this, and DeLoss insists: "We're not saving anybody. We're just providing a platform for those people who are really motivated to change their life. We are in a position to be supportive as an employer."

On his staff: Hot Chicken employs 30 people with an 80 percent retention rate. A little more than half of employees have benefited from Hot Chicken's personal and professional development services. "The greater market sometimes has an aversion to hiring the people who need it, and the people who would probably work the hardest," he says. "We have a great staff. I would pit our staff against any other, because they believe in us and we believe in them."

On franchising: For now, DeLoss is avoiding what he calls the "f-word." Though he does allude that multiple locations around the city could be coming soon with longer hours and a smaller footprint than the North Market space.

His order: "I, unfortunately, still love it," DeLoss says. "We've made these hot chicken bites-I don't know what it is about them; maybe we just have the fry time right, or the heat balance right, but they are unbelievable." The banana pudding is his other vice.


Age: 30

Go-to drink: Bourbon

Guilty pleasure: "The monthly pancake special at German Village Coffee Shop"

Food heroes: "I love the industry builders. Rodney Wasserstrom is one of my heroes for sure."

Favorite ingredient: Cayenne (of course)

Last meal: Falafel Tacos from Firdous-"it's an HCT special."

Favorite off-night eat? Duck breast entree at Wolf's Ridge