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Josh HalpernJosh Halpern is the CEO of both Beer Park and Big Chicken, a dining concept that pays homage to the food of founder Shaquille O’Neal’s childhood. He holds an MBA from Babson College. Josh is currently looking for single and multi-unit franchisees who are serious about the food industry and carrying on the culture of Big Chicken.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Josh Halpern talks about what makes Big Chicken so unique
  • How does Big Chicken bring Shaquille O’Neal’s childhood to the restaurant?
  • Big Chicken’s continued growth on land and sea during the pandemic
  • Why Big Chicken is a great franchise opportunity
  • Traits of a good franchisee

In this episode…

In this episode of the SpotOn Series, Chad Franzen speaks with Josh Halpern, CEO of Big Chicken, about conceptualizing the culinary vision of founder Shaquille O’Neal. Big Chicken takes the foods that Shaq grew up on and brings them to the table with a modern and fun twist. The chain has grown not only on land, but with locations on Carnival Cruise ships. Josh’s mission is to connect with prospective multi-unit franchisees and help Big Chicken grow internationally.

Resources mentioned in this episode:

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:04  

Welcome to the Top Business Leaders Show. Powered by Rise25 media. We featured top founders, executives and business leaders from all over the world.

Chad Franzen  0:20  

Chad Franzen here co host for this show where we feature top restaurateurs, investors and business leaders. This is part of our SpotOn series. SpotOn has the best in class payment platform for retail and they have a flagship solution called SpotOn Restaurant, where they combine marketing software and payments all in one. They serve everyone from larger chains like Dairy Queen and Subway to small mom and pop restaurants. To learn more, go to spot on.com This episode is brought to you by Rise25. We help b2b businesses to get ROI clients referrals and strategic partnerships through done for you podcast. If you have a b2b business and want to build great relationships with clients, referral partners and thought leaders in your space. There’s no better way to do it than through podcasts and content marketing. To learn more, go to Rise25media.com or email us at [email protected] Josh Halpern is Chief Executive Officer at Big Chicken a fast casual dining concept with locations in Glendale, California and Las Vegas, Nevada, as well as at arenas and on cruise ships. Big Chicken’s mantra is big food, big flavor, big fun, and it’s founded by NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal. Josh also sits on the boards of the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Niagara University Food Marketing Center of Excellence, and a few startups. He believes that partnering with franchisees and suppliers is the best way to drive the best possible guest experience. Josh, thanks so much for joining me today. How are you?

Josh Halpern  1:38  

Thank you for having me. I’m great. I mean, I get to work with Shaquille O’Neal every day.

Chad Franzen  1:43  

I would imagine, hey, so tell me about Big Chicken. What What kind of is unique about it? What’s What can a customer expect when they go there? Yeah, you know, it’s it’s interesting. First off, scene behind me here and it’s our Las Vegas restaurant, right?

Josh Halpern  1:58  

This Restaurant Group was really built by Shaquille and that that’s a kind of unique thing right? So many other celebrity endorsed products are just that their endorsements they buy in they put their name on the building. Shaquille did this himself, right partnering, you know, she kills agent Perry Rogers on some restaurants in Las Vegas. One of those. One of those partners that Perry has is nationally recognized in the restaurant world, Matt Silberman and Shaquille and Matt Silverman and Matt’s team really worked to build Big Chicken based upon Shaquille O’Neal’s childhood experience and lifelong love for fried chicken, the sides and the social experience behind it. And anytime you bring in a seven foot one guy into the conversation, you have some really interesting takes on food, right? We have a cookie that’s literally the size of an NBA basketball, no joke, the actual circumference of an NBA basketball and we’ve got great sandwiches, sides, shakes, all rooted in different stories and different experiences in Shaquille Slyke.

Chad Franzen  3:02  

What do you think kind of sets it apart from maybe the more you know more long term chicken type restaurants they could get? They could go to?

Josh Halpern  3:12  

Well, a couple things. First off, we use antibiotic free hormone free cage free chicken that is never under a heat lamp. We don’t own a heat lamp. We wouldn’t know where to find a heat lamp. All of the chicken is fried and breaded fresh for you, which is a little bit different. Right. The second thing is there’s really interesting things on our on our chicken sandwiches that you wouldn’t expect in other places, right. So one day, perfect example we have a sandwich called the Charles Barkley right. And one day Chuck was giving Shaquille a bunch of guff on air he you know about various things and Shaquille walks off set and says make a sandwich called the Charles Barkley Well, we can do that. What do you want on it? Make it big and over the top the way he is right? So the sandwich has garlic, a only onion straws and macaroni and cheese on the sandwich. I don’t think you’re finding that too many other chicken fast casual or QSR places. There’s so much richness to the story in the experience. Even the mac and cheese are mac and cheese has a cheesy crust and it’s become a great story in our company. Because Shaquille claims that’s the way his mom made back in cheese from when he was a kid. His mom swears I didn’t put cheese it’s on the mac and cheese. The boy used to get the box out of the cabinet and put cheese it’s in his own mac and cheese right? So just this richness and story this richness and flavor, interesting combinations and interesting items that you don’t find in other places makes it great.

Chad Franzen  4:40  

So this is something that he’s really he’s really into it. It’s not just his name’s not just audit, he’s this is his thing.

Josh Halpern  4:46  

Yeah, when we were together last week, filming some social media spots and in between takes he’s peppering me with questions. You know, he really views this to be a piece of his legacy. It’s not just a business deal that he’s done. It’s it’s really about him and his life.

Chad Franzen  5:01  

What was your background prior to working with Big Chicken?

Josh Halpern  5:03  

Not restaurants. So I spent the first 20 years of my career in the consumer product space actually, for a handful of those years, I ran the onpremise for Anheuser Busch InBev. So that’s every bar, restaurant, nightclub, hotel stadium airport, anywhere where you would have a beer on the premise. And in that time, I got to work with all the major restaurant chains that sell beer and we started building restaurant experiences through the Bud brand. And through that, I got to know Shaquille and his business partners because Beer Park by Budweiser at the Paris Hotel, Shaquille and his business partners were in the Beer Park side of the coin, I was the by Budweiser side of the coin, and we built an iconic restaurant together. And I have an incredible operator. As my partner and Matt Silverman, who I mentioned earlier, the two of us have different skill sets different agilities we’re able to handle things partnering together, but but really working on our own expertise. So we have consumer products guy who spent the last eight or nine years in the alcohol industry, partnering with a guy with restaurants has been his entire life for the last 20 years who has seen basically everything from fast food all the way up to you know, white, white cloth dining and you know, gloves on hand dining.

Chad Franzen  6:21  

Were in Big Chicken’s lifespan did you kind of start came in unit two.

Josh Halpern  6:27  

So we had Las Vegas and we had, um, the Glendale location open. We had a few arenas and cruise ships that were gonna go in the next few months. Uh, but since I’ve come on board over the last six, eight to nine months, we now have north of a hundred units under development and we continue move the needle down, down, down the way. Um, we were just named one of the hottest 40 emerging chains in QSR Magazine and it’s just because of how fast we’re moving in places like the UBS Arena on Long Island or the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle or even Formula One Race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia we keep showing up where you’d least expect us.

Chad Franzen  6:32  

Wow, and you have a hundred units in development. Can you, can you tell me a little bit more about that? And what goes into that.

Josh Halpern  6:41  

Right now, we’re prioritizing multi-unit operators. We really want people who come in with a partnership-first mentality, who are willing to partner with us and collaborate with us. See, Shaquille O’Neal is one of the more popular celebrities on the planet and one the reasons he got that is through his collaborative spirit. He tells me all the time “look, I was a franchisee long before I was a franchiser. So, if you’re hurting them, your hurting me.” right? And I don’t wanna hurt Shaquille O’Neal. He’s way bigger than I am. Right, so, you know? We’re looking for multi-unit guys that are able to come in and are able to work with us and have really great productive conversation to build the best possible system and the tightest partnership among, among franchisors and franchisee. We currently have deals signed in all four time zones in the Continental United Statesand we’re starting to look at fuller expansion in the US and starting to look at international expansion too.

Chad Franzen  8:11  

So, what makes it a good, I’m sure you’ve answered this a little bit but what do you think makes it a good franchise opportunity?

Josh Halpern  8:19  

I think the number one thing for me, I mean obviously people need to vet their own unit level economics and make sure that that works for them and what they’re trying to achieve. And you know, I can’t speak for all that because of our PC laws and what not, but I think that the number one thing that we bring to the table is transparency and capability

Chad Franzen  9:41  

What do you think, what do you kind look for in terms of characteristics of a good franchisee, beyond just a multi-unit investor?

Josh Halpern  9:50  

One of my franchisees put it best, he said that he was super excited to join this system because of the food, the guest experience. All the things that are not about Shaquille right, you know that he was excited to see our kitchen flow excited to see the way we thought about the business the way we were going to drive the brand. And as a result, he was super excited about Big Chicken and then Shaquille elevated that big time. I think the majority of our requests for franchising on our franchise portal, start with something along the lines of, “hey, Shaq, I’ll open up a chicken joint with you.” Probably not the right franchisee for us, right? We want folks that genuinely do love Shaquille and are proud to call him a teammate, and he’s proud to call them a teammate for sure. But it’s really restaurant operators and franchise operators that understand what we’re trying to do inside the box and feel this can be a win win proposition for everybody.

Chad Franzen  10:54  

As I said in your intro, the mantra is big food, big flavor, big fun. Can you tell me kind of about the culture of Big Chicken?

Josh Halpern  11:16  

We’re, we’re a work hard play hard culture. You know, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We take the business extremely seriously. We’re constantly looking at how do we add a little bit of fun into the guest experience into the menu. We have one chair in every one of our restaurants, it’s like three times the size of of every other chair. And if anybody asks, electric wheelchair, right. We also believe in accessibility and value and trying to make sure that people are able to feel connected to Shaquille without opinion, really about Shaquille if you see the restaurant on my screen, this is hardly a shrine to Shaquille O’Neal, but you feel his presence everywhere, you’d actually stand in His footprints at our soda machine. Right? So there’s all these notions of big fun. And then on the big flavor side, you know, we mentioned the Charles Barkley sandwich earlier. But we really tried to create a fried chicken sandwich experience for everybody. And I guess tying in a big flavor and big fun. We tried to bring in a local sandwich too. So when we launched the UBS Arena on Long Island where the Islanders play, one of the islanders other partners is a deli called Blue Line Deli. And we got to know Donnie and the folks over at Blue Line Deli. And he told us, hey, you know, I make these orange and blue bagels, because I’m a diehard islanders fan. And their colors are blue, and orange. And now you can buy the Islander Chicken Sandwich at UBS arena at Big Chicken and it’s a buffalo chicken sandwich on a blue and orange bagel. And it’s you know, most of our Instagram, our user generated Instagram that comes in on on Big Chicken from from UBS arena is of that sandwich, because people think it’s cool as hell that there’s a blue and orange bun for their blue and orange team. And the sandwich is good. That’s big flavor. Big fun, big food.

Chad Franzen  13:06  

And Big, Big Chicken is on a couple of cruise ships. Tell me about if you can tell me about those locations, and kind of how that came about.

Josh Halpern  13:14  

Yeah, I mean, as far as I’m concerned, every restaurant chain should have their third location ever be floating out at sea, right? This is part of the Shaquille effect. Right? So Shaquille has a really strong relationship with Carnival, going back many many years to when he was with the Miami Heat. Right. That’s the family that owns right. And we had the ability to try our product on a couple of ships you know right now in their internal I don’t think it’s called Yelp but like the rating system on the Carnival Cruise Ships. Right now we’re tied for number one a 40 on on all the restaurants on the boat. The first cruise that they did i i had to do a double take at the at the math right because there’s a six day cruise. So Chad, think about all the people that wouldn’t need a fried chicken sandwich, right? Just whether they’re vegetarian or whether they they’re not looking to put on extra pounds while they’re in a bikini or bathing suit for six days. They have all the people that want you to fry chicken sandwich and think about the fact that we’re five ounce piece of chicken so we’re like a mega chicken sandwich. The first cruise we did on the Carnival Mardi Gras the average person on the boat over six days a 2.2 sandwiches.

Chad Franzen  14:23  

Wow. Very nice.

Josh Halpern  14:26  

It was like it was almost like we didn’t watch right. It was kind of shocking. And in the arena’s. Were selling 567 100 Sandwiches a game as well. It’s pretty amazing.

Chad Franzen  14:37  

COVID Is that a big effect on the restaurant industry and the cruise ship industry How is it kind of affected the operations for Big Chicken?

Josh Halpern  14:45  

You know, it hasn’t it might have slowed down development a little bit because we didn’t watch franchisee until we were coming out at COVID. But ultimately we use COVID to really work on tweaking the kind of continuous improvement type initiatives in our two existing brick and mortars. And we have a maniacal obsession with continuous improvement. So we really work to get our capabilities down. So when we sold our franchisees we had a really capable and transparent ecosystem. So we take our training, we build training, like we’re already 400 stores, we brought in the woman that did the training program, for Wetzels Pretzels, Blaze Pizza, some, some really, really, really big chains. To help build the curriculum, like we were already huge, we spent the time trying to cement a distribution agreement, which we cemented and build supplier relationships. Because we knew the minute we hit the gas pedal, things were gonna start to happen. I came in May 1 of last year, so nine and a half months, we were at two units with seven under development, you know, fast forward nine months, 15 days, we’re at 11 units open and well north of 100, where there’s a couple PR things that need to happen are well north of 100 units under development, we’re moving pretty quick. To do that you really need to work on building your relationships with your suppliers, build your tech stack, right, build all that right to handle that type of growth. And that’s really what Big Chicken spent COVID doing.

Chad Franzen  16:12  

And people can get your product online, even if they don’t live near a location.

Josh Halpern  16:18  

We’re on. We’re on Gold Belly, it’s like my favorite thing to do is just send it to people, right? I guess you’d send something to you so you can try the product. You know, we wanted to be on Gold Belly straight away. They wanted us to straight away it’s a great partnership. Our our team was severely stressed out right before Superbowl there were a lot of people wearing our chicken fingers and chicken sandwiches on go belly. But it’s been amazing to be able to give that level of accessibility to people as we’re building out our footprint.

Chad Franzen  16:47  

So what does that look like when I when? I guess you order something? Let’s say you live in a state where there’s no Big Chicken anywhere nearby you order it, what does that look like?

Josh Halpern  16:56  

Yeah, it comes in the mail. Right? It’s go belly has all the packaging tools and whatnot. And our team has its process on how to ensure the quality and it comes with detailed instructions on how to heat it. The first time I ever eat Big Chicken because I joined right in the middle of like the world still wasn’t traveling yet. They sent me gold belly and I said man, if this is how good it is coming mailed to me, I can only imagine what it’s like in the restaurant. And it was it’s definitely a pretty special place.

Chad Franzen  17:26  

I have one more question for you. But first, how can people find out about becoming a franchisee or just about getting Big Chicken product or finding out about your locations?

Josh Halpern  17:35  

Yeah, BigChicken.com is our website, there’s a tab at the top of the page franchise information. You know, absolutely click on that tab. It’s a very, very short form, just basic, you know, name, email, phone number, etc. And we get you in the pipeline, you know, or LinkedIn to myself or to our head of franchising, Sam Stanovich, and we can help you get going to, but we’re really looking for folks that are excited to build multiple units and wanna be a part of this journey with us and truly be a partner with us. For me, partnerships with our franchisees and with our suppliers is first and foremost, if we can build the right guest experience and do it the right way with our suppliers and franchisees, we’d have a really great winning formula.

Chad Franzen  18:19  

Final question, what is your go to meal at Big Chicken?

Josh Halpern  18:23  

Oh, man, that’s it’s tough. Mainly because as much as I love our chicken I love our milkshakes more. Our milkshake. I’ve never had a milkshake quite as good as ours are my man, our Managing Partner, Matt Silverman, who I mentioned a couple times, he still can’t drink them from the PTSD that he had drinking like 50 gallons of the stuff as we were finalizing the formula. But I would say you know, I really we call our most basic sandwich the MDE for most dominant ever because we put all the effort into the chicken in the breading, and we let the saw the sauce and the toppings are great, but the chicken is really second second to none. I’m just a purist. I like the MDE like the basic sandwich. I love our fries. And I love our milkshakes and me I’m a peanut butter junkie, you saw our El Padrino Negro milkshake has peanut butter in it. That’s a really good one. But right now we have an LTO it’s a Frosted Flakes cereal milkshake. That’s pretty darn good too. And the big man Shaquille he turns 50 In just a few weeks, and we’re going to be launching a birthday cake shake to celebrate Shaquille’s 50th that I’m pretty fired up about to

Chad Franzen  19:34  

who who came up or how did you guys come up with these kinds of unique milkshakes you don’t you know, you don’t see those often at most kind of fast, casual or fast food places.

Josh Halpern  19:43  

Yeah, we have a culinary team that works on it. In the case of birthday cake shake, I was like we need to do something big for Shaquille’s birthday. And that’s what they came up with. You know, we look at Shaquille’s existing partners and how we could tie in some of their items into the menu so he’s on a box Frosted Flakes right now it made sense to bring frosted flakes into the restaurant. But we look at seasonality we look at how can we do something cool and innovative with bringing as few new ingredients in as possible. Because it’s it’s always hard introducing ingredients into the kitchen when when you’re trying to run at scale. We try to sell to six to nine months out and as a result, have really really cool food innovation pipeline that can sustain us and what I love I love our LTO’s whenever I’m in a restaurant, it’s it’s always the MPO but my go to on the regular menu is still the basic sandwich the MBE with our fries, and with our El Pedrito Negro shake.

Chad Franzen  20:42  

Very nice. Very nice sounds I’m starving now. Hey, thanks so much for joining me today, George. It’s been great talking to you and best wishes on the future with Big Chicken.

Josh Halpern  20:51  

Thank you so much for having me very much. Appreciate it. It’s been great having this conversation with you.

Chad Franzen  20:56  

Thank you, Josh. So long, everybody.

Outro  20:57  

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