As another American QSR concept enters the UK as part of an agreement with Azzurri Group, MCA examines what will make the Nashville-style hot chicken brand stand out from a competitive crowd

Dave's Hot Chicken

Founded in 2017 by a group of high school dropouts in LA, Dave’s Hot Chicken has a humble origin story, but experienced no trouble gaining cult-like status in the US, attracting a loyal Gen-Z fan base and high-profile celebrity investors.

In the beginning, three childhood friends in their 20s scraped together $900 for a “not-so-grand opening”, in a parking lot in East Hollywood, with a couple of folding tables and a portable fryer under the night sky.

Through the power of Instagram, people came, and tasted, including a reporter from Eater LA, who wrote, “East Hollywood’s new late night hot chicken stand might blow your mind.”

“The rest is history,” says Azzurri Group CEO Steve Holmes, the man now responsible for growing Dave’s Hot Chicken in the UK.

He stands on the shoulders of founders Tommy Rubenyan, Arman Oganeshyan, and the brand’s namesake Dave Kopushyan, who created the spiced-to-order concept with seven heat levels, ranging from ‘no spice’ to ‘The Reaper,’ on a menu of tenders, sliders, and sides. 

Dave’s now operates 200 sites, making it one of the fastest-growing fast-casual chains in the US, also reporting 156% total sales growth in 2022 compared to the previous year.

The business achieved notable milestones last year, with 79 new openings and a record-breaking November; opening seven new locations in one week. It has since gone global, with strategic expansions into Canada and the Middle East.

Now, it’s crossing the Atlantic to heat up the UK’s fried chicken scene, with the Azzurri Group planning to open 60 units in the UK and Ireland, starting in London by Q1 2025.

But what will make Dave’s Hot Chicken stand out in the crowded UK market, amongst fellow US imports such as Wingstop, Slim Chickens, Chick-fil-A and Popeyes?

The secret sauce

“Ultimately there’s a gap in the market,” Holmes says. “Fried chicken is hugely popular; the market size in the UK is twice that of burgers.

“You’ve got Wingstop, KFC, Popeyes doing brilliantly well. But we still think there’s an opportunity to add another, as long as it’s got a point of differentiation which we think Dave’s does.”

One ingredient helping Dave’s Hot Chicken’s stand out from the competition is a strong brand personality and backstory.

“Because it’s got genuine founders, the business has got a real personality. It’s the original American dream—three high school drop-outs putting all their money together to come up with a product that they’re selling in a car in a parking lot in East Hollywood. They end up with an incredible write-up in LA Eater and the rest is history.”

The founders’ continued involvement brings authenticity and charisma to the brand, says Holmes, with Oganesyan, also a stand-up comedian, becoming the brand’s social media guru, injecting humour into its online presence.

Holmes has seen firsthand the pull of the social media magnet for its core young audience. “I mentioned Dave’s to my son and he was already obsessed by the brand, following it on social media,” he says. “That piqued my interest. How does a 17-year-old lad who lives near London know anything about a US food business that hasn’t got any operation in the UK?”

Social media influencers have lauded the brand’s Nashville hot chicken sliders since its inception, contributing to the brand’s more than 1.3m followers on Instagram and 2.4m on TikTok. The brand has capitalised on user-generated content, with TikTokers filming themselves tasting the menu for the first time or tackling The Reaper, which requires a waiver before you order.

Adding to this allure is the endorsement from celebrities like Canadian rapper Drake, who is a key investor alongside R&B crooner Usher, actor Samuel L. Jackson, and former NFL player Michael Strahan. Drake’s birthday in October has even become a brand holiday, with free sliders all-day. The pairing reportedly began in 2021 when Drake’s team ordered Dave’s Hot Chicken to celebrate receiving Billboard’s Artist of the Decade award.

This brand image is reflected in the store design. “It’s got a very modern, rap-music type vibe to it.  And that just gives the brand massive personality. It’s a real uplifting experience,” Holmes says. 

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Holmes is quick to note the brand’s “real cult-like status” is driven by an ”incredible” product.

At its inception, Kopushyan brought a level of culinary expertise that sets the brand apart; a classically trained chef who has worked in high-end Michelin-starred restaurants across Los Angeles.

“It’s a really good product—really juicy chicken, real flavours, and very large portion sizes, so incredible value for money,” says Holmes. A simple operation, the menu hasn’t changed much since the beginning, offering a selection of fried chicken, doused in sauce and dusted with spice with varying levels of heat.

The Azurri CEO points out that the trend for spicy food is particularly strong in the UK, where adventurous eaters are eager to test their limits. Still, the most popular flavours in the US are medium or mild.

“People like spicy food, and it is growing in popularity in the UK and Ireland. You could argue that we’re more accepting of spice in the UK than they do in the US so if it’s successful business over there, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be here.”

However, there may be some education required for the UK audience on the Dave’s proposition. “Does the UK consumer know what a slider is? I think they probably do, but it’s not common terminology. 

”It’s traditional Nashville chicken, so it comes on a piece of white sliced bread. Again, we’re not used to that, so it’s going to be interesting, but we’re probably going to stick fairly close to the execution of the proposition in the US—there’s minimal changes that we need to make.”

Future-proofing Azzurri

Dave’s is the latest concept to join the Azzurri Group portfolio, which includes Italian casual dining brands Zizzi, ASK Italian, and quick-service counterpart Coco di Mama. The group acquired the Irish-founded Mexican fast-casual chain, Boojum, in June 2023.

Holmes admits, “I’d be lying if I said that part of the appeal of both Boojum and Dave’s Hot Chicken is that they are a different cuisine and consumer demographic. You have got two amazing businesses in ASK and Zizzi, but they’re both full-service Italian.”

Whilst Boojum attracts a largely student consumer base, it has in common with Dave’s a predominantly ”high quality, good value for money proposition with a light labour model.”

“It is very differentiated, relative to the ASK and Zizzi business. That gives us a bit more resilience and breadth, from a future-proofing perspective.”

Regarding the growth potential in the UK, Holmes adds, “America is a lot bigger than the UK, so I think they’re always going to be able to open more and go faster than we would do over here.

“But I think we’re excited about how many we can have. We’re going to start in central London and want to open by early 2025 - if we’re really lucky before Christmas.”