The secret sauce(s) behind Sticky’s not-so-secret chicken shop success

With 14 locations – nine in New York and five in New Jersey – Sticky’s, a contemporary take on the classic American chicken shop, is slowly taking the northeast coast by storm. Created out of a love for all things chicken and a desire to think outside the ordinary, Sticky’s strives to be the best by offering gourmet chicken fingers and homemade sauces that taste clucking good.

“I am a huge fan of sauces and the unique flavors they can add to a dish,” begins Jon Sherman, CEO and Co-Founder at Sticky’s. “The beauty of chicken is its mild flavor; because of this, it works with a vast range of flavor profiles. In fact, I regard chicken as a blank canvas that works with anything – if sauces are good on their own, then you bet they will be good on a chicken finger! You cannot really say that about other kinds of proteins. I love eating beef, pork, and fish; however, only certain types of sauces will work with them.

Stickys “We have a handful of sweeter sauces, but also sweet and savory combinations,” he goes on. “With these different mixes, the flavors of the chicken and the sauces come together in a way that makes Sticky’s a truly unique experience. Ultimately, it also means that people will not only crave our food because it is delicious, but because they are able to come back and get a vastly different experience next time by trying a new sauce.”

Chicken can be bought as either crunchy, grilled fingers or as poppers (coming in small, medium, and large sizes), or as tender boneless thighs. For the latter, Sticky’s also offers a popular hot honey version: crunchy dark chicken meat slathered in hot honey sauce and Carolina Reaper flakes.

But truly exciting things start happening with the fast-casual restaurant’s signature creations. Here, Sticky’s and its creative imagination around chicken really comes to life.

There is the Thai Fiesta, for instance, which features mac sauce, Thai sweet chili, taco seasoning, and sesame seeds. Or the Vampire Killer with its vampire aioli (creamy roasted garlic dip), grated parmesan, garlic chips, and dusting of pink peppercorn flakes.

Also available, among many others, is the Buffalo Ranch option, which features buffalo balsamic maple sauce paired with buttermilk baby ranch, all on a bed of shredded carrots. In short, there is truly something for everyone – 18 homemade sauces back this up.

These include Caribbean Sweet Heat, a hot pineapple and mango chutney; Nashville Numb, a Southern-and-Szechuan-inspired hot sauce; Waffle Sauce, a sweet maple frosting; and General T’Sticky, a Sticky’s take on the traditional American-Chinese classic.

Location expansion
Whatever the palate desires, the palate may have. Sticky’s’ menu also includes sandwiches, specialty items, wraps, salads, and a range of French fries – some of which are more adventurous than others… We are looking at you, S’mores fries (a serving of straight cut fries dressed with marshmallow sauce, chocolate sauce, crushed graham crackers, mini marshmallows, and parsley). More pedestrian options like bacon mac and truffle parmesan fries are also available.

Though Sticky’s is proud to be a New Yorker business, it is now looking further afield. “We began our operations in New York City, and let me tell you, that city is a unique animal – particularly before the pandemic,” explains Jon. “It is the place where I have lived for a large portion of time, and I know it intimately well. So, when launching the business, we really relied on our knowledge of the market. It has certainly been a learning experience moving beyond the city, because nothing is like New York.

“In the city, there is always foot traffic and an immense density of people,” he continues. “There is really nothing quite like it. Therefore, once you leave New York, it is almost like you are starting from scratch, even just from a real estate and site selection standpoint. Nevertheless, we have recently ventured out, opening a restaurant in the Cross County Mall in Yonkers. It has been really exciting.

Stickys “We are testing out a lot of new things, including a slightly different menu and service model,” Jon adds. “It is helping us think about what kind of thing we will be doing going forward. Early performance has been strong, and we are pleased to be in Westchester County, just outside of the city in New York State. Guests are really excited about the new venture, and it has been great to see some of the familiarity they are already showing with the brand, even though it is a new market for us. So, in all, it has been a really promising start and we intend to look at other markets outside of the city.”

Even though Jon admits that the market for gourmet chicken has grown tremendously over the last ten years or so, he firmly believes that the Sticky’s brand and product offering is highly differentiated within that space. Hence, wherever the company sets up shop, he insists that people will still flock to its stores thanks to the brand’s unique style, wide product range, sharp culinary focus, and keen emphasis on flavor.

Another facet of the business that sets Sticky’s apart is its focus on technology. “Since our inception, we have embraced technology to support the restaurants as they have continued to grow,” Jon details. “We rely on technology for our operations execution, restaurant management, and customer experience. In general, there are two types of technology that we employ: customer facing and internal. We have built an environment where a range of different programs talk to each other; data flows on a daily basis between technology systems, enabling us to see the business in real-time. To have that information is incredibly beneficial. It allows our store managers and operators to understand what is happening, and therefore manage their individual establishments accordingly.

“Separately, we are also utilizing an app, an online ordering platform, and a loyalty program for our customers to use,” he adds. “Put together, these technologies have been a key part of our strategy for future growth. As we operate relatively small restaurants, a lot of our business comes from take-out and delivery. By having our own app and ordering platform, we are giving customers the chance to order directly from us. Not only will this offer them the best experience, but it will also offer the most competitive price since they will not have to pay third-party delivery fees.”

Return to growth
Data garnered from direct ordering also means that Sticky’s can amass a wealth of information regarding the ordering habits of its customers. Richer data that details customer behavior is incredibly valuable; it means the brand will now be able to communicate more effectively, zeroing in on what the people really want.

On top of that, a loyalty program model ensures customers keep coming back by incentivizing more frequent visits. “It is always going to be a process of evolution where technology and how it applies to a business are concerned,” explains Jon. “Therefore, as the landscape changes, we will continuously adapt as more robust platforms and digital offerings become available.”

Going forward, Sticky’s is hoping for a return to form and another strong period of growth. “We approached the beginning of the pandemic with exponential growth in 2019,” Jon reflects. “In fact, we doubled our store count and had a few more in the pipeline; however, it is no secret that it has been challenging to operate our business over the last couple of years, particularly with so many stores dotted across New York City.

“As we look beyond the height of the pandemic, we hope that things will normalize once more, especially across the supply chain where we are still seeing enormous price pressure on a lot of the ingredients we purchase, and we can resume our growth trajectory,” he concludes. “Right now, our primary focus is on everything we can do at an execution level and on a supply chain level. Therefore, when things do pick up and we begin to upscale once more, we will have moving parts under control.”