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Dave’s Hot Chicken comes to Canada


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Dave’s Hot Chicken

Fried chicken so hot a signed waiver is required to eat it. “I acknowledge that eating the Reaper can cause me harm, including, but not limited to, bodily injury, property damage, emotional distress, or even death,” reads the release of liability from Dave’s Hot Chicken.

The Reaper, with its blend of dried jalapeño, habanero, Trinidad scorpion, ghost pepper and Carolina Reaper pepper is the hottest of Dave’s seven heat levels, levels that add variety to a still-simple menu of just three combo options, aptly named #1, #2 and #3.  

The simplicity of the menu and the food itself are what brought Blair Bitove and her father, John, to Los Angeles last year after catching wind of Dave’s, which since its founding as a parking lot pop-up in 2017 has grown to four restaurants and more recently began accelerating its franchise effort.

“We started hearing about this hot chicken chain,” says Bitove, who attended the University of Southern California and still travels to the area often from her home in Toronto. “The lines out the door were crazy and we were like, let’s see what the hype is about. After trying the food, we both looked at each other and were like, we need this in Canada.”

Bill Phelps

After co-founding Wetzel’s Pretzels and accelerating growth at Blaze Pizza, Bill Phelps is now leading franchise expansion efforts as CEO of Dave’s Hot Chicken.

International isn’t that easy

It wasn’t quite that simple, however, to get a deal for the master franchise rights for Canada. When the Bitoves first connected with Bill Phelps, CEO of Dave’s Hot Chicken, in late 2019, only two restaurants were open and the brand just launched its franchise program. International expansion, said Phelps, wasn’t planned for at least three years as he sought to keep attention and resources focused on domestic growth and avoid some of the missteps he made earlier in his career.

“I’ve seen the failures in infrastructure,” said Phelps, who co-founded Wetzel’s Pretzels with Rick Wetzel 25 years ago, and helped launch Blaze Pizza with Rick and Elise Wetzel.

“You need to be disciplined and have your systems down pat.”

At Wetzel’s Pretzels, Phelps recalled, they signed deals early on with franchisees in Asia only to grapple with support issues later. “There’d be all kinds of excitement and we’d get a store open but we didn’t have the infrastructure to do it right,” he said.  

Phelps acknowledged that infrastructure still isn’t fully in place at Dave’s Hot Chicken either, but stressed having a strong international partner this time around, and starting in Canada versus on another continent, will make a difference.

“John Bitove is an extremely experienced franchisee and operator,” said Phelps. “John is really an entrepreneur. We told John, we’ll help” with the launch in Toronto, “but we don’t have all that infrastructure and he said he was OK with that. He has the resources and experience to make that work.”

Blair Bitove

Blair Bitove, with her dad, John, is leading development of Dave’s Hot Chicken in Canada.

The right playbook

Bitove is the CEO of Obelysk, an investment management group that counts SiriusXM Canada and escooter brand Bird among its holdings, and he’s the founder of the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. On the franchise side, Bitove at one time had more than 700 units of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut in Canada. Dave’s Hot Chicken is the first restaurant brand under his Obelysk Food group, with a master agreement to open 30 units throughout Ontario and British Columbia.

Blair Bitove, as director of business development, will manage the expansion of Dave’s after heading up development and legal at Canadian waxing franchise WaxOn and working as an analyst at Brookfield Asset Management. She said the concept will appeal to Canadians who are only just beginning to experience the fried chicken craze that last year reached an obsessive level in the U.S. as Popeyes and others put out new products.

“It’s not as saturated in Canada yet with all the chicken chains,” said Bitove, but early indicators from competitors show demand is there. “Chick-fil-A just came to Canada last year and there are lines out the door.”

Dave’s Hot Chicken, though, stands out in the quick-service segment, said Bitove, because its offerings and experience are “more upscale” than is typical for QSR. Created by classically trained chef Dave Kopushyan and friends Arman Oganesyan and Tom and Gary Rubenyan, Dave’s uses a higher quality chicken and a proprietary brine to achieve what Bitove said is a better product. Each restaurant’s design, too, is unique, thanks to a relationship the founders have with several street artists who create murals and wall art specific to each location. Having design elements that are reflective of the neighborhood will increase the brand’s local appeal, said Bitove.

Dave's Hot Chicken

Street artists create unique wall art for each location of Dave’s Hot Chicken.

“The street art at Dave’s, they do a lot of graffiti, so it’s representative of the area that it’s in,” she said. “Canadians like that.

“There’s been a lot of brands that come up to Canada and think they can just do the same thing” they do in the U.S. “and then they don’t succeed and people don’t understand why,” Bitove continued. “The culture here is very different” from city to city and among provinces. “You have to know the city, the uniqueness of the neighborhoods. From an operations standpoint, we know Canada.”

While Bitove originally hoped to open the first Dave’s Hot Chicken in Toronto earlier this summer, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed those plans. Toronto’s restaurants were still limited to takeout and delivery service as of mid-June, and Bitove said with most offices still closed and consumers likely to prefer off-premises or outdoor dining for the foreseeable future, she’s altered her real estate strategy in response.

“Originally,” said Bitove, “we were looking at the financial district” of downtown Toronto. “But because we don’t know how long this will go on, we’re looking more for foot traffic and residential.

“And we’re looking for locations with a walk-up window and a patio.”

Dave’s, which now has four locations open in California and agreements signed for more than 100 franchise units, benefits from having a product that travels well and operations that already emphasized takeout, said Phelps.

“Our business declined about 25 percent toward the end of March,” he noted, as a result of statewide restrictions and consumers staying home. “Two weeks later we were down 6 percent, and two weeks ago,” in late May, “we were up 14 percent from pre-COVID.”

The brand is about to sign a lease for its first drive-thru location in Southern California, which will serve as a prototype for franchisees.

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