Lawrence Hartzog’s dreams of running a successful fried chicken restaurant came true when he opened his first Hartz Chicken Buffet in southern Texas 40 years ago. The restaurant earned a reputation for having some of the best fried chicken in the South, and its fair prices and commitment to old-fashioned customer service enticed patrons to keep coming back. Before long, the restaurants began to multiply, and Hartz became a staple eatery in the Houston marketplace.
Today, there are more than 60 Hartz Chicken Buffet restaurants throughout Texas and Malaysia with additional stores on the roster. The Spring, Texas-based company has continued to grow throughout the years because it has never strayed from its core specialty: dazzling customers with authentic, Southern-style, golden-fried chicken, says Quan Vu, controller and manager of Hartz Franchise Restaurants Ltd.
Vu joined the company when his uncle Levan and aunt Lan acquired Hartz Franchise Restaurants in 2004. As former Hartz franchisees and executive officers of Restaurants Inter¬national Inc., the couple brings more than 30 years of franchising and food experience to the business, Vu says.
Unlike other quick-serve chicken franchises that hide their chicken in holding cabinets after it’s been fried where customers can’t see it, Hartz Chicken Buffet proudly and prominently displays its chicken on a chicken rack behind the counter so customers can behold the sight and alluring smell of freshly prepared fried chicken. “We are unique in the way we display our chicken,” Vu admits.
Hartz also is unique because it introduced several industry firsts to the marketplace, he adds. “When [Hartzog] first started the company, it was a dine-in-style restaurant, but it evolved over the years,” Vu notes. “We were the first chicken restaurant to offer drive-thru service and the first chain to offer an all-you-can-eat buffet with chicken being the primary entrée. That’s what it has evolved into today – a dine-in, takeout, à la carte and all-you-can-eat buffet, and drive-thru.
“It’s interesting because our buffet concept wasn’t added until the mid-’80s during that recession when Hartz was finding ways to bring value to our customers,” he continues. “That time is no different than this time. People are always looking to get the most out of their dollar, and I think that is what separates us in the marketplace – the fact that we offer a buffet where people can fill their bellies for $8. We attract customers because the value is there.”
All Hartz Chicken Buffet restaurants have a warm, inviting feel to them, he describes. “Our restaurants are located in dense, family-oriented areas,” Vu says. “We want it to feel very much like you’re sitting at home and eating with your family.”
Sticking with Chicken
Although fried chicken is Hartz’s “meal ticket,” the restaurant has more than 100 menu items, Vu says. “Our menu is pretty extensive,” he remarks. “We offer a variety of products à la carte and on our buffet menu.”
These include baked chicken, chicken tenders, Texas-style breaded hot wings known locally as “Tejas Wings,” fried fish, liver and gizzards, sometimes shrimp and many other Southern delicacies. Its staple side dishes range from crispy French fries, mashed potatoes and coleslaw to jalapenos, baked beans, fried okra and peach cobbler.
“Our most famous dish would be our yeast rolls made fresh in the store every day,” Vu says. “Lots of chicken restaurants provide a biscuit, but this is more of a dinner roll that is very soft and has a buttery taste. It goes well with fried chicken. Customers will just come into the restaurant, buy a dozen or two and take them home.”
Hartz works closely with its vendors to introduce new limited time offerings. “They have vast resources to conduct market research and will sit down with us to discuss what may or may not work,” Vu says. “If it works, we’ll keep it on our buffet. If it doesn’t, we’ll scratch it and move on to the next item. We will continue to have limited time offerings to stimulate sales, but we’ll always stick with our mainstay items.”
Customers Come First
No matter how good a restaurant’s food is, it’s nothing without solid customer service, which is what Hartz continues to be known for, Vu says. “We have always been customer service-oriented,” he maintains. “Our No. 1 priority is to make sure the customer is happy. Whatever they ask for, they get. Everyone here is focused on quality assurance and always looking for things we can improve on.”
Potential franchisees are carefully screened to ensure they have the same philosophy and goals, and could complement the brand. “If we deem them a good fit for our concept, we’ll help them with the build-out and the other processes it takes to become a franchisee,” Vu says. “We’ll train them either at our company stores or a franchisee’s store so they can get a real-world, real-time feel for how a Hartz Chicken restaurant works and operates.”
Through its franchise model, the company intends to grow in the Austin and San Antonio markets, he says. In addition, Hartz wants to expand its international presence. “Back in the 1990s, when all of the chains were looking to bring American franchises over to Asia, one of them was Hartz Chicken,” he explains.