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Raising Cane's founder keeps all hats in air at chicken-finger chain

by Chris Bahn | August 9, 2015 at 1:47 a.m.

Titles matter at Raising Cane's, the Louisiana-based chicken-finger chain.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer Todd Graves began putting a focus on how employees were labeled when the franchise began its rapid expansion about six years ago. He wants his employees, particularly at the corporate level, concerned with their job titles.

Maybe not in the way you might expect from a company doing $500 million in annual sales.

During a recent interview, Graves -- who founded the chain 19 years ago in Baton Rouge -- wore a shirt with "Fry Cook & Cashier" written on the right sleeve. That phrase is featured on business cards and email signatures for Graves and anybody working in corporate offices in Baton Rouge or near Dallas.

Graves, 43, still lives a tenth of a mile from the original restaurant he opened in 1996 and was in Fayetteville to help open the chain's first Arkansas location and 228th overall. He also spent time scouting future locations and -- get this -- eating at popular local favorite and fast-growing chicken-finger franchise Slim Chickens.

We discussed his philosophy on corporate titles, Arkansas' role in supplying chicken to the chain, the history of chicken-finger chains and how far Raising Cane's -- which is named for his dog -- has come since Graves opened his first store with a $50,000 Small Business Administration loan and $90,000 earned over two years of working oil refineries and as part of a fishing crew.

(Our conversation has been partially edited for continuity and space.)

Why did Arkansas finally make sense?

With Northwest Arkansas booming like it is, that makes real estate a challenge. We're in a position now where we can do multiple restaurants. I love college towns, and that makes an opening like this fun. I'm also really excited about all the poultry providers up here. We have eight major players up here we get chicken from that goes across the country. If you're a chicken guy, this is the mecca.

So, Tyson, George's ...

Yeah. There are some smaller players, but Tyson, George's, Simmons, OK Foods, Ozark Mountain Poultry. OMP, they're growing like crazy, and their CEO Ed Fryer is a really neat guy. They're state-of-the-art. We do like 11 million pounds with Simmons. We're probably going up to 10 million with OK Foods. Last year we did like 45 million pounds of chicken in all. That's a lot of chicken fingers. We're incredibly focused on the quality. I believe in doing one thing and doing it better than everybody else.

Is there ever temptation to expand the menu beyond fried chicken-finger meals?

All the time. Yeah. I just want to stay true to the core of Raising Cane's, which is chicken fingers. I don't mind chicken fingers in a salad. People talk about wraps and different things, but we stay real close to our customers. We do focus groups, and there's just not that much of a need. We have a Cane's in the San Antonio airport. We were mandated by the City Council to do grilled options. It started as 20 percent of sales and is now about 1.5 [percent]. I just don't see any reason to complicate it unless we have to, you know?

Labeling yourself CEO, founder, fry cook and cashier is a nice PR touch for sure. What's the thought behind that?

I started that whole thing when we started getting bigger and opened our first support office [in 2009], and people started getting titles. If you work here, you're going to live this. You come in, train in the restaurant. It establishes empathy. And you don't just work Monday through Friday hours. You'll go through a late night. You'll work on a Sunday. You're the executive director of blah, blah, whatever? OK. You're also fry cook and cashier. We're not going to take ourselves too seriously and lose touch.

Is that attitude difficult to maintain nearly 20 years into this with a half-billion dollars in annual sales?

I'm fortunate it was so hard to open the first one. I couldn't get money for it. I didn't have family money. I've worked 120-hour weeks. I worked in refineries. I worked in Alaska fishing. I camped out for a month on the Tundra before I had a job. It's classic, man. I just appreciate everything. My crew. My customers. My community. This is my dream. This is an expression of me and my family. This is what I was put here for, right? I'm proud of what we've built. I want to keep that going. We'll do $6.5 million in community involvement this year. That's amazing.

Slim Chickens is well-established here. This feels, on some level, like Target opening a store with Wal-Mart headquarters down the road.

Yes. Exactly. Look, I don't know who came up with the whole chicken-fingers craze. It was probably Jack's. They've been around probably 50 years. Then the Guthrie family did a chicken-finger-specific meal in the 1980s. Zaxbys in the early 1990s. There's room for everybody. Slim, they're hometown heroes. I have all the respect in the world for them. Competition is good for America. It's good for a town.

SundayMonday Business on 08/09/2015

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