Taking the reins of the family business

Danielle and Jelani Jackson are owners and operators of Richie’s Chicken & Soul, a fast-casual soul-food restaurant based in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. Danielle’s family originally started Richie’s in 1986, and she and Jelani joined the business in 2015 to understand the ropes of owning and growing a restaurant.

"We need to change our model from customer first to team first."

Jelani JacksonCo-Owner, Richie's Chicken & Soul

Transcription

Welcome to Building While Flying, a Sasha Group podcast where we interview business leaders about how they tackle challenges, stay resilient and navigate ever changing skies. 

[00:00:12] Joe: Thanks for joining us for this week’s edition of the Building While Flying podcast. My name is Joe Quattrone, and today we have some special guests.

We have 4 Ds alumni members, restaurateurs, Jelani, and Danielle Jackson, owners of Richie’s Chicken and Soul. Jelani and Danielle say, hi, everybody. Hey everyone. All right. Awesome. Can you guys give me a quick little overview of Richie’s Chicken and Soul and what your role in the restaurant is? . 

[00:00:42] Jelani: Mm-hmm. . So Richie’s Chicken and Soul is what we call a daughter brand.

So my wife’s father back in 1986, founded the original Richie’s Chicken and that concept was fast food in nature, really based on amazing fried chicken sites. And, uh, just an amazing environment, but more of a fast food experience. My wife and I jumped into the family business around seven years ago in 2015, really to understand the ropes of.

What it means to own a restaurant and, and always tell people. It took us, you know, five years to really understand what we didn’t know and in terms of how to run a restaurant and build a culture. And then after those five years, we said, you know, what does the Richies of the future look like? Richies 2.0 And what we came up with was Richie’s Chicken and Soul, which is a concept that’s really focused a lot more on the experie.

And not just the food. And so that comes in with how customers interact with the building, the design, the flow of the customer through it, how our team interacts with customers, our social media presence. It was a holistic look of how we can bring hospitality to the brand, both in a physical and a digital format.

[00:02:06] Joe: Nice. And you said something that. Uh, strikes a chord with, I, I think our audience members in calling it a family business, a lot of people don’t realize this because everybody talks about venture capitalists backed startups and stuff like that, being like one of the key economic drivers, but it’s actually a really small segment of the small business society.

A far larger audience out there is small business community that relates to the family business, and it’s such a big, prevalent part of what we do at The, Sasha Group, but also here at Building. While Flying. What made you guys wanna get into the family business? What was, uh, the driving force and, and kinda signing up to do this?

Cause I know it’s not for the faint of heart , 

[00:02:47] Danielle: so I knew I always would be in the family business. My first job was at the age of five filling up hot sauce cups. By the age of eight, I was running the cash register. I’m the only child, so I knew, you know, it was gonna get passed down to me. I was gonna probably go into the family business, but in 2015 when we got into the family business, it was just kinda like God led us there.

It was just the right timing and my husband had just lost his job and we were like, you know, We’re tired of working for people. That’s what he said. He’s like, I’m tired of working for people. I was a stay at home mom at that time, and he was like, we should jump into the business now. And then we just jumped into the business and went from there.

Right. 

[00:03:35] Joe: You guys did, you guys actually enacted, uh, a little bit of a, I would say your early adopters on a trend that really has kind of swept the nation during the pandemic, leaving corporate USA and doing your own thing in a small business environment. Jelani, you didn’t originally, you don’t have a restaurant background, do you, uh, tell us a little bit more about what your background.

[00:03:58] Jelani: So my background’s a little bit, it was a convoluted or kind of, I don’t know, aist route to this point. So in college I was actually pre-med and was on the track to become a physician, but I was, my major was actually music and Spanish and was just a way to. Major in what I was interested in, but still have a career.

Toward the end of my college career. I decided I didn’t wanna do any of those and I actually wanted to jump into business. But I didn’t have a lot of experience, so I started working at a bank here locally in Cincinnati called Fifth Third Bank, but always with aspirations of being in business investing or starting my own thing.

And I was able to navigate that initial role as a credit analyst into a private equity associate, and then as an equity research analyst, and I did all that banking and finance for about a decade. And actually enjoyed the actual work, but not so much the, you know, the corporate stuffy nature that comes along with anytime you’re in corporate America or banking in finance, they tend to be, you know, more straight and narrow stuffier fields.

And so as I was analyzing these companies for other people and that sort of, Just head in the back of my head. I always looked at my father-in-law’s business and like, this is, this business has some great bones to it. The infrastructures not totally there. The systems aren’t totally there. The marketing’s not totally there, but like the food is amazing and it has a great.

Local following, and I said, if we ever did something, we should do something with this. Um, but the funny thing was, coming from a corporate background, things always seem easier. You, you always, you can point out all the issues. But like the details are all in the execution. It’s all in the execution. And executing is much, much harder than you think because with the company, it depends on you building a team and having leadership and getting people all roll in the same direction, and that was the missing element.

You know, as a research analyst, you don’t always realize, you’re like, why don’t the company just do this, this, and this? You know? And then once you are running a company, you realize, oh, there’s teams and culture and building that and systems and, and so that was a really interesting transition in learning, learning for me personally, while my wife had a.

Experience running teams and being a store manager. So she saw a lot of the pitfalls that I eventually fell into. So it was kinda, it was interesting. . Yeah. 

[00:06:56] Joe: Danielle, um, I know you’ve been outside of Cincinnati. I saw you up in New York, uh, and you grew up in the restaurant yourself. Uh, in, in the Richie’s environment.

What, what does Richie’s have, uh, that you think is scalable? Do you, do you see this franchise or this daughter company concept, or even just Richie’s as a whole, expanding beyond the borders of, of Cincinnati and Ohio and, and, and becoming a little bit more broadly known across the country? What do you guys have that’s so special that you think the rest of the country might wanna pick up on?

[00:07:25] Danielle: So,  of course it’s our food, but it’s also how we treat our. We take pride in how we take care of our team members and also how we treat our customers. I don’t wanna franchise, but I do want to grow the company. I think we could be like a in and out burger for chicken where it’s all, you know, family owned.

But as far as what we have to offer that’s different from other chicken restaurants, I would have to say the experience and the food and how we treat our. Like we take pride in how we treat our team. Like we’re very big on caring about them, showing empathy, showing love, something that we also do with our food.

We always tell our customers that we put love in our food and you can taste it. I would also say, as far as our team, very big on making sure that everyone’s heard. And making sure that you’re not just a number, that everyone knows who you are, that we take the time to speak to you, see how you’re doing.

That’s just something that we’re very big on. 

[00:08:32] Joe: Gotcha. Mm-hmm. , and you know, you guys have grown substantially across your social media profiles over the past couple of years while you’re looking to recruit the next generation of potential Richie’s customers. How are you adopting kind of your. Familial kind of atmosphere when it comes to relations between generations.

How are you bringing those folks up into your world a little bit more? What do you think resonates between your company and the next generation of folks out there that are on TikTok and Instagram and all these different platforms? 

[00:09:04] Jelani: I think for us it’s It’s all about our core values. So our three core values are spread the love, do it with style.

Remember your roots, so it’s spread the love, doing it with style and remembering your roots. And that translates so easily to the social media because we allow our team members and ourselves to be our authentic selves. Inside the store and outside the store. And so all of us are a little goofy, a little weird, and we just let that rip on social media and people really connect with that.

And then also our food is very much tied to people’s upbringing. And so people have a strong connection to soul food. You know, everyone, they have their favorite fried chicken that their mother or grandmother may have made or their, the cornbread that they had here. And so, That provides a great connection for people because it reminds them of their childhood.

And then it’s just, you know, we doing it with style. We add our own flavor to the social media, which I think really translates and I think. The biggest part that speaks to people is just the authenticity of us being ourselves, and then people being able to see how we interact on social media. And when they come in the store, they still feel that same energy and vibe and they’re like, okay, well like that’s really, really cool, especially as a recruiting tool when they see that.

What they’re seeing in the video, they actually have that in the store as well. I love the, 

[00:10:42] Joe: the chicken microphone. Where did you guys get that concept? Did you borrow that concept from somewhere in Twitter or a TikTok? I mean, or did you guys come up with 

[00:10:50] Jelani: that on your own? We borrowed that, that our, we have a social media intern.

He’s a local. High school student. So we recommend to everyone out there who’s looking to build their team, look at local high school students that have extra time. That’s a great resource, but that was something he came up with and we ran with it and it was super successful. Um, it was a. It was a trend on TikTok and he said, let’s do this.

And we’re like, yeah. And we’re with our intern. We’re pretty much, if he comes up with ideas, we just like to greenlight it and say, let’s, let’s do it. Uh, what? Let’s see what sticks. But that’s where that came from. That’s a 

[00:11:29] Joe: big philosophy of Gary’s is stop saying or and start saying. And so yeah, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing, but yeah.

And we’re gonna do all this other stuff over here. That’s how we’re gonna be able to get the best results. But you said that people. Experience when they see what’s going on online, they kind of get the same vibe when they come into the restaurant. Are you guys borrowing any of that kind of the music and stuff like that that you see that you’re using on online or you, you, you know, creating playlists or how do you create the same ambiance?

Is it just the energy of the staff? Like what exactly do you think it is that translates 

[00:12:03] Danielle: It’s the energy of the staff, but also, um, we’re very, we’re all very big on music, so. You know, you come in one day, you may be listening to Al Green on Sunday. We only play church music, so, you know, you have all of our church proud that comes in on Friday night.

We may play dance hall on a Wednesday. We may play Calypso, which is, you know, Caribbean music. So it’s always something different and everyone can kind of connect, you know, when customers are waiting in line. You see the connection. They’re just, they’re dancing as they’re waiting on their food. Or on Sundays, you know, you’ll have customers that’ll say, I didn’t go to church today, but oh my gosh, I just filled the spirit here.

Like, I just came here and I filled the Holy Ghost . Um, so it’s just like, Right. You know, it’s just a real, a really good connection with a customer where, you know, they, they love hearing the music or you’ll have a customer, I think we’ve, I have a customer on, um, a video where one time he was just singing and everyone just starts pitching in to singing too.

So it’s just a whole connection and just having a good time. We’re very loud . 

[00:13:17] Jelani: It’s a very loud yelling to the kitchen, you know, can get irreverent at times. You know, it’s just, uh, we joke with our customers. You know, some people like it, some people, but we’re just, it’s a very, like if you were at a cookout sort of thing, and it’s like, that’s what we tell people where maybe your first time at the cookout, but everyone’s welcoming in showing the food and it’s a, you know, every person that comes in, we’re greeting them.

It, it’s a 1 0 1 connect. And one of the first things we did, we, we made sure that we had a good speaker system. So we have those speakers in there and we had those from the beginning. Cause we were like, we really want music to be at the forefront of what we do. So it’s, it translated really well. I mean, like we have some of the clips that we have online are just of our team members breaking out into.

Just randomly, and then we just will capture a video of that and make, we make clips out of that. And it’s not like, Hey, dance, it’s like he’s dancing and then we pull out the video or she’s dancing and we, we capture it. And so it’s like, that’s why people can catch the vibe because it’s not necessarily people putting on an act for the camera.

It’s just like we’re capturing moments within our store. So it’s kinda. 

[00:14:39] Joe: I like, I like what you said about um, you know, being able to almost like teleport people into like memories that they have of, of when they were younger or whatever because of what you’re cooking. Talk to me about the sensation or the, the sense of smell that kind of carries over with.

Cuz I know a lot of the memories that I have for my youth are from. The smells of my grandmother’s kitchen or something like that. Are there certain types of ingredients that you guys use to really unlock those memories for people when it comes to, to soul food? And if so, might be, you know, company secrets, but what are a couple of those, uh, key ingredients that you think really unlock the, the 

[00:15:15] Jelani: memories for, for me?

Do you have one, Dave? No, go ahead. Uh, for me, there’s nothing like the smell of just like fried chicken and the grease and it’s just bubbling. There’s nothing better than that. And layered on top of that fresh baking cornbread every day. Mm-hmm. and like, so mixing that, those two smells. And then if you have like, Then if you get the big pot of greens cooking on the stove, and so you’ve got like the garlic and the onion and we add a little vinegar.

That’s, you know, our family, my wife’s family, we like to add a little, that little tang into our, to our greens. And so when that hits kind of get that all that smells mixing together, those are, I know what you mean. I 

[00:16:05] Joe: have family from, that’s from the North Carolina part of the world, so vinegar. Whole pork barbecue.

Exactly. It’s a very aroma, but one that every time I walk into a barbecue place I’m like, yep, this is 

[00:16:16] Jelani: North Carolina barbecue. Exactly. So, you know what I mean? It’s just, that hits your nose and it kind of like, it’s like 

[00:16:23] Danielle: a, especially when they’re cooking cornbread and peach cobbler candy, yams. You get that cinnamon, that nutmeg and like the peach.

Oh my gosh. It just smells so good. 

[00:16:37] Joe: So speaking of all that, I mean, you’re making me hungry first and foremost, but it is November and there is a holiday coming up around the bend that has food at the center point of it. What’s gonna be on the Jackson table? Uh, this Thanksgiving? 

[00:16:53] Danielle: You know, it’s actually so funny.

Um, Because my family’s Caribbean, so literally for Thanksgiving, it’s all Caribbean food. Is it? It’s not really much American food at all. There’s no fried chicken, there’s no cornbread, everything. So we’re Italian. 

[00:17:12] Joe: So we had very similar thing. There was no, there was usually Italian food on our table at Thanksgiving.

Um, and, and I, I actually despise Turkey. I love ham. So if I’m gonna do something that’s somewhat relative, we usually go and get. That’s so funny. Yeah. 

[00:17:27] Danielle: Yeah, it’s, it’s actually interesting cuz like my father actually does not eat chicken. Okay, there you go. 

[00:17:33] Joe: That’s we’ll probably have, 

[00:17:37] Danielle: yeah, so we’ll probably have, um, some we’ll have macaroni pie that they make.

We’ll have some curry goat, we’ll have curry chicken. We will have some Turkey that they normally cut up, or we’ll have some five spice chicken, which is like Chinese. That’s the main thing. Not really any American food. 

[00:17:57] Joe: Oh wow. Okay. Nice. So real quick before we wrap up here, you know, the restaurant business, much maligned during Covid, it was a very hard thing to keep afloat for a lot of small businesses out there, but you know, fortunately your business and a lot of others made it through.

What do you think over the next handful of years now that we’ve learned some lessons from those years? What do you think restaurants are gonna have to do in the future to stay relevant, stay top of mind, and keep people coming in in good times and in bad? I would 

[00:18:28] Danielle: have to say focusing on how you treat your team and also focusing on how you treat your customers, uh, going above and beyond to take care of them.

[00:18:40] Jelani: Right. I, I second that. I think the biggest pivot we’d had during the pandemic was, Early on we had rising food costs and we had a lot of demand, so revenue was high, but our margins were shrinking and it was really hard to staff. We couldn’t find enough people. And we made the decision. We came together and said We need to change our model from a customer first model to a team first model, and making sure that our team is taken care of, that financially and emotionally.

And it was something that we had done in the past, but this is something we were like, this is gonna be not one of the priorities, but the priority. And we made that change and significantly raised everyone’s pay rate to the point where for a month and a month, month to two months, we were actually in the, in the red, red, just to, but it was a right move to make.

But after we did that, we. Our revenues went even higher. We were able to fully staff, and the reason the revenue went higher is because. Our team felt heard. They felt protected, and so they worked harder. We were able to fully staff and competitors had to shorten their hours or cut days because they weren’t able to staff appropriately and they weren’t able to maintain an excellent level of customer service and all of that.

So while Other companies were having a lot of customer service issues, staffing issues. We paid more. Which hurt in the short term, but it helped us a lot. So I think that’s one of the big shifts that I see in the restaurant industry. And there’s a lot of peers, you know, online or that we follow where they had this model of, well, nobody wants to work and this and that, and was very much this kind of negative approach to the environment.

Instead of saying, okay, what do. these you know, workers need that are, we’re at the front line of this pandemic and addressing that. And some of these people that have complained who noticed here locally, there’s been a lot of small businesses that have closed related to staffing issues. So that was one of the biggest shifts.

And then I would say number two is telling your story and through marketing, through digital and the social media, I think. If you don’t tell your story and get that out, other people will tell your story or it won’t even be heard of at all. So it is one of those two options. And so those are one of the, probably the two major shifts that we’ve made.

[00:21:26] Joe: Well, that’s awesome. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear to to end on a high note. So just for the rest of the businesses out there listening, you heard it from Jelani and Danielle, tell your story. Or else somebody’s gonna tell it for you, or you’re gonna get kinda left in the dust altogether. Anyway, thanks for joining us, everybody and the audience, please feel free to join us for another edition of The Building Offline Podcast next week.

I’ve been your host, Joe Quattrone. Thank you very much.

Welcome to Building While Flying!

This weekly podcast is brought to you by Sasha Group. We’re the consultancy meets agency arm of the VaynerX family of companies. We help ambitious companies build strong brands that flex with the times through strategy, branding media and marketing.

In ever-changing times, businesses and brands have to shift and adapt. And across all sectors, there is an air of experimentation. Business owners are trying new things out in the wild;  building the plane while flying.

Our pilots, Katie Hankinson and Mickey Cloud, will be talking to a diverse range of business leaders and founders. They’ll explore how these guests tackle various challenges while staying resilient and committed to growth. Through these real-life examples of strategies put into practice, we hope to inspire you to experiment and develop your own strategies as we all navigate these uncertain times together.

Focus on your people.

Danielle and Jelani Jackson are owners and operators of Richie’s Chicken & Soul, a fast-casual soul-food restaurant based in the Cincinnati, Ohio, area. Danielle’s family originally started Richie’s in 1986, and she and Jelani joined the business in 2015 to understand the ropes of owning and growing a restaurant.

In their conversation with Joe Quattrone, Jelani and Danielle share how they’ve evolved Richie’s over the last seven years, and what “Richie’s 2.0” looks like. They emphasize hospitality and authenticity both in store and on their social media channels, and aim to create a memorable brand experience as well as delicious soul food. Above all, what makes Richie’s stand out, Danielle says, is their focus on their people and building an environment where people feel safe, supported, inspired to work hard, and are happy to be there. 

In-flight topics:

  • Owning and operating a family business vs. a funded startup
  • Learning curves from corporate to small business
  • Supporting your team as humans
  • Building hospitality in person and online 
  • Incorporating your values into your business
  • …and more!
Connect with Jelani and Danielle:

Richie’s Chicken & Soul website: https://www.richieschicken.com/ 

Jelani on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jelani-jackson-6b534013/ 

Richie’s Chicken & Soul Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/richieschicken/

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