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Emily and Josh TRA Show.jpg Photo courtesy of the Texas Restaurant Association
Texas Restaurant Association CEO Emily Williams Knight and Big Chicken CEO Josh Halpern during the recent Texas Restaurant Association Show in Houston.

Big Chicken’s big plans to create deeper guest and employee connections

CEO Josh Halpern discussed how the company is approaching training, benefits and loyalty to ‘make things less transactional.’

Josh Halpern seems to be having a lot of fun in his role as CEO of Big Chicken, Shaquille O’Neal’s fast casual chicken concept founded in 2018. He proudly shows off the brand’s 12-inch Big Cookie and talks about its restaurants’ Shaq-sized footprints near the drink dispensers. And, since coming on board in 2021, Halpern has led the brand through explosive expansion, with over 200 agreements signed in several markets less than a year after the company’s franchising program launch.

But he wants much more than just bigness and growth. During a fireside chat at the Texas Restaurant Association Show this week with TRA CEO Emily Williams Knight, Halpern outlined his biggest priorities with the brand – creating deeper employee loyalty and authentic, non-transactional relationships with customers.

Sounds simple enough on paper, right? But anyone who runs a restaurant will tell you it’s much harder to execute. Halpern’s strategy is to keep things simple.

“You don’t need these sweeping gestures of grandeur to change. It’s the little things that count,” he said.

Here are some of the “little things” Big Chicken is doing to focus on those priorities.


For employees, Halpern cautioned to not rest on any laurels when it comes to their engagement.

“Shaquille’s agent, who is like a brother and mentor to me, says all the time you could be 100% right and still not be right. And I think the way we are with our staff right now really embodies that,” he said.

Essentially that means “we’re doing a good job” as the industry has raised the minimum wage considerably, and is making sure employees get regularly scheduled breaks and is offering more benefits than ever.

“But when push comes to shove, about a quarter of [the industry’s] employees are on food stamps. In California, 6% of the total homeless population work in fast food restaurants. So, we need to recognize the balance here,” he said.

To do that, Halpern said the industry needs to rethink the way it communicates with its employees, citing an example that most employees are now Gen Z, but most of the training material in the industry is “not Gen Z oriented.” Big Chicken is also working with a group called the Health Benefit Alliance to help offer part-time employees health insurance and is in discussions with a university to offer financial literacy classes for its employees.

“It’s about access. We’re looking at this for so many different angles. We may not be able to do much more in terms of hourly wage, but we can teach people how to better spend their money,” Halpern said. “If you just go back to the notion that hospitality is from the heart and we’re relying on all of our workers and their hearts, and they have conflict in their heart because they’re worried about how they’re going to pay their next bill … You treat them with grace and figure out little ways to make their life better and we’re a little bit closer to being more right on that 100%.”

Still, Halpern acknowledges that employee loyalty is hard to come by. Younger employees often consider themselves to be independent brokers, for instance, who are building their personal brand and “who are there for their bottom line, not for our bottom line.” The relationship is therefore more of a collaboration, and they prefer having a voice in some of the decision making.

Halpern said that presents a major opportunity and, for its part, Big Chicken has been relying on employee input to consider changes from its training program – using gaming systems – to the music played in its restaurants. Communicating with younger employees, however, can pose a challenge.

“It’s a process and honestly, it’s hard in a franchise environment, but we’re working on it. For the younger generation, it’s more about listening. It’s a holistic approach of knowing who’s on your team and then caring about them deeply outside of just the task they’re doing. But it has to be authentic,” he said.


Consumers are also craving authenticity and Halpern is staunch about making sure his brand – and the industry as a whole – moves away from transactional relationships. Big Chicken is taking a holistic approach here as well, using its data as a starting point.

“The one place we’re lacking as an industry is we’re not really in our data. We have more data than anybody, but we’re not focusing yet on the consumer, we’re focusing on the shop,” Halpern said. “Not one restaurant right now is actually talking to the consumer. Big Chicken will be very soon.”

The brand plans to launch a loyalty program next month that provides families with the option of how they’re going to redeem points, whether for food, merchandise, experiences, or cash.

“We’re going to look at the number of visits and there will be utility on the number of visits. We are going to launch a version with the belief that after 90 days we’re going to increase the utility to this thing and really go after the whole ecosystem, not just the guy who puts the credit card in,” Halpern said.

There are also other ways Big Chicken is trying to make its customer relationships less transactional, including a recorded message from Shaq on loyalty members’ birthdays, and free kids’ meals on the last day of school.

“We want our loyalty program to be about growing your brand through people’s hearts and not about being transactional,” Halpern said.

Why is this important? Halpern predicts a stronger consumer influence in the near future and is setting his brand up to be prepared as much as possible.

“I think in five years, our consumers are going to be curating our brands more than they are today. So, we’re working on mechanisms where consumers will be able vote on next LTO, we’re working on mechanisms to talk to different generations separately to make sure we’re winning with them all,” he said.

Such relationships, he believes, will continue to aid in the industry’s recovery and success.

“The restaurant was ultimately the original social network. Food is a social construct first and we’ll continue to figure out ways to be even more social even as this means more digital and the metaverse and people on their headset, gaming,” he said. “They’re still eating food together, right? There’s nothing better than sharing a meal with the people you care about and love and that’s why I’m always going to be optimistic about this industry.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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