It’s no secret we geek out about the strawberries in our Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk ice cream. Little gems ruby red to their core and far more flavorful than their bite-size appearance would have you believe. So deep is our love for farmer Mike Hirsch’s strawberries—grown just for us an hour away from our kitchen—we had to celebrate. We needed a picnic-style party to embrace the fleeting Ohio strawberry season. We gathered some of our favorite people in and around Columbus for the inaugural Strawberry Jam; a casual affair with good tunes and good people, and lots of strawberry ice cream.

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Seventh Son Brewing, one of Columbus’s best breweries, offered to host. Our friends from wine and beer shop Barrel & Bottle in the North Market provided beautiful rose wine. Produce whiz Cara Mangini of Little Eater (we wrote about her cookbook a few months ago) made a killer potato salad and amazing kale salad. Of course farmer Mike Hirsch was there with pints of his tiny berries, and we served split pints of Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk for dessert. It was a night filled with conviviality and we can’t wait to see how the Strawberry Jam grows with even more friends next year.

But we want to take a break from strawberry talk to discuss the main course. It was a Jeni’s house favorite: cold fried chicken. Actually, it was cold hot chicken to be precise, from the amazing Hot Chicken Takeover in the North Market—something almost always on hand for lunch at Jeni’s HQ. (Try it if you haven’t. There’s just something that happens when fried chicken is cooled overnight in the fridge. The breading turns soft like stuffing and the cayenne heat of the Nashville-style chicken intensifies. It’s delicious!)

Yes, we love Hot Chicken Takeover founder and head fryer Joe DeLoss for his chicken, but truly admire him for his company mission. Two years ago, Joe started HCT as a fried chicken takeout window in an up-and-coming Columbus neighborhood. Diners would drive 30 minutes plus and wait an hour in line for his spicy fried chicken, mac and cheese, cole slaw, and all the sweet tea you can drink. A fact that hasn’t changed much—you’ll still find a long, but friendly line of customers patiently waiting six days a week at his North Market restaurant.

Joe started on this venture with a social mission in mind. He wanted to create jobs for people considered unemployable. He wanted to build a company that evolves with and cares for its workforce. And he’s done just that. He’s expanded from a carryout window to a full-service restaurant, a catering arm, and a food truck. His menu now includes multiple heat levels of chicken (every piece fried to order), waffles on the weekends, and some pretty addicting banana pudding.

We caught up with Joe (genuinely one of the nicest guys around) to talk social enterprise, hot chicken, and his addiction to iced tea.


Most of your professional career has been focused on social enterprise. What instilled in you this need to help others?

I have not had a life affected by poverty or incarceration or homelessness. And I’ve had a lot more privilege in hindsight than I ever imagined. When I was in college, I started to more viscerally understand and meet people who had such a different experience than mine coming up. It was a really meaningful education for me and in a lot of ways enriched my life and my world. I kind of got hooked on just seeing people’s life improve because of opportunity, and I wanted to be part of that journey. Employment was a really sustainable way to do that. Separate from that, I was really passionate about entrepreneurship, always been, and passionate about service and volunteerism. And that kind of itch got scratched by this social enterprise.

DeLoss Headshot

How did you know you were going to be an entrepreneur?

I can give you a series of enterprises I had when I was young. But I was always finding ways to create my own money. Or before money I wanted to own this things or do this thing. As a kid one of the first experiences we had was myself and my buddies, I was kind of the ring leader, we all looted our parents’ pantries and loaded up a Radio Flyer wagon with a cooler and rode the wagon around our subdivision that was under construction and sold stuff to construction workers. We were selling cold pop and candy bars and popsicles. It lasted for maybe a week, week and a half, which is a long time when you’re a kind in fourth grade. But all our moms realized the pantry was getting eaten through faster than normal and they got wise to the fact that we were running a business with no expenses.

I was an amateur magician in middle school and I did birthday parties. (He still knows a few tricks involving a sponge ball, he quips.) In high school I taught guitar lessons. I’ve always been finding a way to create my own.

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You don’t come from a restaurant background. But several of the businesses you’ve created are in the hospitality industry. How did you find food was the right venture for you?

My first food venture was a shock. I had really limited exposure to food. In hindsight it makes sense. I love food. I think I am a savvy consumer of food. I really love the experience people can have around eating and that kind of community. I guess it makes sense I tried to curate an experience like that as somebody who loves when others curate that experience for me. That’s something I love about going into a Jeni’s and tasting all the flavors and hearing the perspective from the employees about their favorite combinations. It just feels really well crafted. As a customer, I am never going to have a bad experience in Jeni’s because they are really intentional about me having a great experience. Lisa [his wife] and I just went to Akai Hana for our weekly lunch date. That’s a place I am never anxious about spending money cause they just really care about you. And the woman gave me a pitcher of iced tea, so what else could I need?

Wait. Exactly how much iced tea do you drink?

About 2 gallons a day. Mostly green tea and oolong, but now that the restaurant serves unsweetened tea… Yesterday I cleared a Starbucks of all the green tea they had on premise. I was really proud of myself. (He drank 8 trenta-sized teas in 4 hours.)

It was a trip to Nashville and its famous Prince’s Hot Chicken in fall 2013 that started this whole thing. It was your first time to Nashville and Prince’s. What was it about hot chicken that made you realize this is the idea?

Before I even had the chicken we waited about 90 minutes to eat it. It was at Prince’s and we were in line with a really slice of life. That was captivating. Lisa was pregnant, so waiting 90 minutes for anything is a lot. We’re kind of going between the restaurant and our car. There was no seating inside, it was packed. Before even eating the chicken, there’s this allure and legacy and this feeling and community around it and excitement. Making somebody wait for something, you’ve really gotta be proud of what you serve. And you really want to honor somebody’s time with something great. And curate it. And the chicken was great. My eyes were open to this whole new thing.

The logical conversation on the way home was, nobody really does that here. We couldn’t even think of going and eating fried chicken anywhere. I thought there’s nothing like this in Central Ohio. And wouldn’t it be special if there were.

Let’s talk about the social part of your enterprise. You built Hot Chicken Takeover with a mission to employ the so-called unemployable, and to help give all your workers opportunities, regardless of their backgrounds. It’s a human resource approach to running a company. How has this mission evolved or changed as you’ve grown?

It’s a really special team of people. What we do is not charitable. We enter into this contract with our employees not dissimilar than every other conventional employer that says this is what we expect of you, and our standards list is really, really high. Being a Hot Chicken employee is not easy. We have a lot of accountability. We are a very value driven force.

The second part of that is here are your expectations of us. Part of that promise is we have a benefit system that is a little unconventional, and what we try to do is make our benefit system really responsive and relevant to where are our employees are in their lives. And the reality is most of our employees, really most entry-level employees particularly in food service, have a lot of transition happening in their life for one reason or another. There might be volatility or instability.

We try to create a benefits package that’s relevant to that. There are benefits associated with financial growth and stability, personal growth and development, and professional growth and development. Those are our three buckets. It’s a whole arsenal of benefits whether it’s helping people get access to the banking system because it might be a system they’ve been outed from. Or get access to services in the community that won’t take advantage of their instability; whether it’s alternatives to payday lending or pawn shops. We’re trying to create secondary options to those things. So that’s really important. And it’s evolved a lot. It’s evolved because our relationship with our employees has evolved and we’ve got more employees. We’re learning from them what’s going to be the most impactful.

When you think of wanting to be a really awesome employer, part of that is meeting your employees where they are at, and providing them with the resources they need to be successful in life and work. We’re constantly evolving to be the best at HR that we can be. And to have a highly engaged workforce. How do we keep people engaged and entertained? We just want to be really relevant and a really good place to work.

How many employees do you have now?

45. A third full-time and two-thirds part-time. We are estimating we will need about 60 to 70 employees for the next restaurant. It’s crazy. That 45 supports the restaurant six days a week, plus our catering operations, plus our food truck. That’s a big number. And almost 60 percent of our workforce has been affected by incarceration or criminal records. Right now the statistic is 1 in 3 American adults have a criminal record, which is alarming to a lot of people. But that puts into perspective that this number, this isn’t some marginalized minority of people. That’s pretty American to have a criminal record. When you think about that, this isn’t just a group of people you can cast off.

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