While some may call the Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers menu simple, AJ Kumaran prefers another term.
“People call it simple. But it's not simple; it's focused,” said Kumaran, who serves as co-CEO of the Baton Rouge, La.-based fast-casual brand with founder Todd Graves. “And focus is hard. Focus is not easy.”
That focus sets Raising Cane’s apart from competitors, he added.
“Other people think focus is easy and jump into it,” Kumaran said. “Focus means your customer — every single customer — knows your product is as good as you make it or even better. That is hard.”
During the 2020 pandemic year, Top 500 partner Datassential tracked Raising Cane’s to a 12.1% growth in units and 17.5% growth in sales.
Kumaran said he expects “2021 is going to be even bigger and better” for the limited-service chicken-tender concept.
“We have aspirations to build about another 85 new restaurants and enter about 15–20 new markets in the next 12 months, which is incredible growth,” he said. “We are entering our 31st state [Wisconsin] coming up here soon in Milwaukee.”
The Top 500 data ranked Raising Cane’s at No. 69 among domestic brands with 518 units at the end of 2020, up 56 locations from the previous year, when it ranked No. 80. Datassential pegged systemwide sales at $1.72 billion in 2020.
Graves founded Raising Cane’s in 1996 near the Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge, and the brand is named for his yellow Labrador dog, Raising Cane.
“The 25 years of work that we have put into growing our brand,” Kumaran said, “it is all just coming together nicely and propelling us forward right now.”
He added that Raising Cane’s hired almost 10,000 new crew members and acquired the last couple of franchisee groups in 2020. “We hit on all cylinders despite the pandemic,” Kumaran said.
He said much of the success goes back to Raising Cane’s “cool culture.” Kumaran said the company makes significant investments dedicated to employees and follows what it calls the “three Rs”: respect, reward and recognition.
“We all know we're in the middle of probably the largest labor shortage that this business — or any business — has ever faced, and everybody is out there trying to do sign-on bonuses and things like that,” Kumaran said. “And people always ask us, ‘What are you doing?’ I said: ‘Nothing different.’”
Kumaran said the pandemic reinforced the company’s commitment to its workers. Raising Cane’s did not lay off any employees when the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March 2020, and the company followed its “No Crew Left Behind” mantra, he said.
“That really resonated with our crew members and our customers alike,” Kumaran said. “Even the customers see it, and they see that in the smiles in our crew members.”
He noted that restaurant leaders need to recognize that many jobs they offer will be the first job for 60–70% of U.S. workers. “We have got to be mindful of that,” Kumaran said, “and talk to them and lead them and coach them in a positive manner, which is what respect, reward and recognition is all about. When you see someone doing the right thing, call that out. It makes a big difference.”
Because Raising Cane’s units had the golden real estate of the drive-thrus during the pandemic, Kumaran said the brand sees little need to tap into the expensive third-party delivery market.
“Our newly introduced mobile order has been big,” he said, adding that the delivery model doesn’t work well for Raising Cane’s.
“I don't see that model working for us,” he said. “Maybe in the future. Right now, in this business, it’s razor-thin margins. It is pennies on the dollar. … These fees do not make sense for these small meals being delivered.”
Raising Cane’s introduced a food truck last year, and that is being deployed as the brand enters new markets.
“Active community involvement has been core to our DNA from day one,” he said, “so we want to be involved and engaged in our communities. The food truck gives us a great way to do that ahead of time, before that first restaurant opens.”
With 85 and as many as 90 new restaurants planned this year and more than 100 in the pipeline for 2022, Kumaran said any immediate changes in buildings will be to accommodate speed in the kitchens and drive-thrus.
And with about 40,000 employees systemwide now, Kumaran said he is looking “forward to the day when we have 100,000 crew members.” That aspirational goal “puts a smile on my face,” he said.
“We are now open 24/7 somewhere in the world,” Kumaran added, “whether that is the Middle East or somewhere, we're serving chicken-finger meals.
What worries the Raising Cane’s executive?
“I always worry about to safety,” he said. “We put safety as a big priority — you saw that through the pandemic too — because I don't want to make a call to that spouse, that mother, that significant other or what have you and talk about something bad that happened in a restaurant.”
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- Hear the full interview with AJ Kumaran
- 2021 Top 500 countdown: The 50 biggest restaurants in America
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