There is a long-standing debate surrounding the secret to perfect fried chicken. Is it the crispy texture of the skin, or the spice blend it’s seasoned with? Or perhaps the ideal cooking time and temperature, to ensure the tender flesh maintains just the right amount of juiciness? Whether it’s just a preference or your profession, all fried-chicken eaters have an opinion. However, when it comes to the secrets of operating a hugely successful fried chicken business, we have a pretty good idea of who has the final say.
Neal Onebane lived in southwest Louisiana, locally known as Cajun country, and this is where he founded Krispy Krunchy. The birth of the company came when Neal started to experiment with the base spice blend coating the fried chicken he had started to sell across his eight convenience stores, back in 1989. He developed the branding inhouse and was soon selling his chicken to other outlets, all along South Louisiana. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina swept through in late 2005 and almost decimated the business. The following year, Dan Shapiro, CEO, joined the company.
“I started out as a third shift cashier in a convenience store, and have spent my whole life working in the industry,” Dan opens. “I actually had Krispy Krunchy in some of my locations that I brought up to Kansas and Missouri in 2002, and wanted to get on board because I’ve always thought Krispy Krunchy offers such a great product. As a result of the hurricane, when I joined, most of Krispy Krunchy’s 70 stores were either damaged or without power, so we decided to spread the business geographically to protect it from any future natural disasters.
“We immediately started advertising in trade publications and attending food shows, to give the impression that we were bigger than we were. People really responded. I remember when we first went to California, and we were literally only featured in convenience store magazines back then. Surprisingly, the owner of the first unit we were moving into already knew who we were. The credibility those ads gave us, along with our familiarity with the industry and peer-to-peer style approach, really helped us grow in those first few years. We’re now in around 2700 of the US’ 150,000 convenience stores, so we’re doing well but there’s plenty more space to get into.”
In addition to breakfast food and chicken, Krispy Krunchy offers classic accompaniments such as fries, mac and cheese, and potatoes and gravy, as well as a range of traditional Louisiana sides. These include boudin bites, which are deep-fried balls of rice with Cajun-style sausage meat, honey butter shrimp, jambalaya and New-Orleans-style red beans and rice.
“If you’ve never heard of red beans and rice, or don’t come from this part of the country, then I get that they don’t sound too exciting,” he confesses. “I remember being at our distributor’s place in Phoenix and I handed their Vice President a bowl of these beans. She was like, ‘I don’t eat beans,’ then she gave them a try. Next thing you know, she’s made it to the bottom and she’s scraping away at the tub, and looks at me and says in a serious tone ‘these are really good.’ They’re like this creamy, smokey pot of deliciousness, but we have to do a lot of sampling to get people to try them first.”
In 2016, the business received a surprise endorsement from celebrity chef Dale Talde, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Talde listed the Krispy Krunchy outlet in his local bodega as the best fried chicken place in New York, which prompted Thrillist to put together a larger profile titled: You probably haven’t heard of America’s best fried chicken chain.
“We were blown away!” Dan exclaims. “We don’t do advertising, because we’re in convenience stores, so our model is based on the principle of location. We simply make our products available in places that consumers already visit for other reasons and brand them professionally in a quick-service-restaurant style. Whenever I travel across the country, I always wear my Krispy Krunchy shirt, and what I’ve found is that people have either never heard of us or think that we’re the absolute best, there’s no in-between.
“We are looking to broaden our horizons, placement wise, however. Our second Walmart location opened recently, so that’s one in Phoenix and now another in Florida. Otherwise, it’s just convenience stores, a number of arenas, such as the New Orleans Pelicans and the Smoothy King Center, and a couple of universities, too. Like I said, places where people already need to be.”
The company was unfortunately forced to withdraw its services from Mexico during the pandemic, on account of the supply chain issues that arose and the impact that Covid had on the tourism industry in Cancun, Krispy Krunchy’s largest market. The business has since shifted its complete attention onto its US-based operations, in which it currently serves all 48 contiguous states, with Texas, California and Florida hosting the most occupied convenience stores. In addition to the southeastern states of Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the West Coast also presents a large market for the organization, on account of the large populations in Washington, Oregon and California.
“Right now, we are trying to figure out the best area to focus on growing,” he explains. “Our main growth is attributed to opening more stores, of which we have plans to develop a further 400 in 2023. Last year we managed 238, but I’m confident, as we’re already ordering equipment and POS for at least 200 new locations that have placed deposits.
“A big part of our culture is to treat everybody as an equal partner, so we’ve maintained some excellent relationships within our supply chain. When we first started growing, Tyson was our only chicken supplier, which also happens to be the largest in the US. So there we were, a little convenience store chicken company ordering 50 cases at a time, and Tyson would distribute them for us regardless of the complete lack of sense it made economically. The team over there saw the potential in our model and really helped us to grow. We now also rely on OK Foods and Koch for chicken, but the poultry industry has taken a hit in recent times as a result of avian flu.
“We struggled elsewhere with some of the less obvious components. For instance, we couldn’t get the right lids for the cups in which we serve our side dishes. They come from Vietnam on a container ship, but the vessel got stuck somewhere. We also had issues obtaining our usual white logoed paper bags, so we’ve had to swap them out for a brown option. We have solid relationships with all of these suppliers, so they really did try to help us. Especially with the double-digit growth that we’ve experienced, they know that being on our team is only going to benefit them in the future.