Hot Chicken Takeover: Good Food & Second Chances

Hot Chicken Takeover hadn’t opened yet and already the line on the second floor in North Market, Columbus Ohio’s super food emporium was about a half hour long.

“It’s always like this,” said my friend Kari Van Treuren who was showing me around the city. As an aside, I’d never thought much about Columbus and was surprised when I arrived to find out it was a bustling, booming place with lots of fun neighborhoods, major artisan distilleries and breweries, shopping and museums. There was even talk of a high speed railway coming in four or so years, connecting Chicago to Columbus in a trip that would take about an hour. Most surprisingly, to me, was to learn it’s the 15th largest city in the country. Who would have thought?


The city’s great food scene was on display at North Market with its cornucopia of offerings including Little Eater Produce and Provisions founded by Cara Mangini (her last name translates, loosely I’m told, into little eater) who is the author of The Vegetable Butcher: How to Select, Prep, Slice, Dice, and Masterfully Cook Vegetables from Artichokes to Zucchini (Workman 2016; $29.95), winner, of the IACP Cookbook Awards for Single Subject and People’s Choice. It’s the kind of place where I saw two people working on slicing a wheel of cheese that looked like it was six-feet in diameter, could buy the most luscious French pastries and also stuffed cabbage and pierogi.

20180309_105228 (1)

Hot Chicken Takeover (HCT), besides specializing in the type of spicy fried chicken made by marinating chicken overnight in a mixture of buttermilk and hot sauce, is an innovative program started by founder Joe DeLoss, who after a trip to Nashville, Tennessee and numerous dinners of hot chicken there, came up with the idea of starting a pop-up restaurant that not only featured his version of hot chicken but also hired people often considered unemployable or poor employment risks. These included those trying to get jobs after being released for jail or prison, who had spotty employment history or for some reason just couldn’t find or keep a job.  But DeLoss wasn’t looking to give a hand-out, his employees are expected to show up for work on time, set goals and do their job. The pop-up was so successful—it was open ten hours a week during which they sold between 1000 to 1200 meals—that DeLoss opened his restaurant in North Market in the city’s downtown. They now have two other locations in Columbus, employ over 200 people, 70% of whom have been in the corrections system or homeless and have between a 70 to 80% employee retention rate. For anyone knowledgeable about the restaurant business, that’s a huge number in a business with a large turnover rate.

“It’s about accountability and support,” DeLoss told us when he stopped by our table as we were eating chicken sandwiches, banana pudding and his family’s recipe for coleslaw.

I really didn’t want to put my sandwich down to talk but his business model is fascinating and offers a micro-solution for those who are struggling to jumpstart their life. Our waiter had already told us that he had dealt with alcoholism and homelessness but now had been working at HCT for about a year-and-a-half and really liked the sense of community and support he received from both DeLoss and the rest of the staff.

The buzz is so big about HCT that TV food maven Rachel Ray showed up, tasted the chicken (her interpretation of the hot chicken recipe is below) and spent time talking to DeLoss on camera.

Looking around the restaurant, you don’t see the sadness of street life. The employees are well-groomed and friendly, the patrons include a mixture of casually dressed college students and those who look like they work in offices. Even though the lines are long to order, there’s a lot of laughter and conviviality. DeLoss says that most of his customers don’t even know about the philanthropic aspect of his business but come for the food.

HCT is a great example of doing good and providing great grub. It not only makes my stomach happy but also my heart.

Hot Chicken

6 to 8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, pounded
6 to 8 pieces boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half on a bias
Salt and pepper
2 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons Frank’s Red Hot or Crystal Hot Sauce

For the slaw:
1/2 cup pickle brine (homemade or store-bought sliced pickles, B&B or dill)
1 tablespoon superfine/quick-dissolve sugar or Acacia honey
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 pound (about 6 cups) shredded white cabbage
1 teaspoon celery seed
1/4 cup dill, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper

For dredging chicken:
3 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon granulated garlic
1 tablespoon granulated onion
1 tablespoon paprika

Vegetable oil, for frying
4 eggs

For the sauce: 
1 stick of butter
4 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons granulated onion

Sliced good quality white bread

Season chicken with salt and pepper, cover with buttermilk and hot sauce, and refrigerate overnight.

Whisk up slaw dressing, toss with cabbage, celery seed and dill.  Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Heat a few inches of frying oil in Dutch oven or tabletop fryer to 350°F.

Whisk up flour dredge in a shallow dish then whisk eggs together in a separate dish and season with salt and pepper. Coat chicken first in flour and shake off excess. Dip into egg and coat in flour one more time. Add to hot oil and fry 8-10 minutes until cooked through.

For the sauce, melt butter in a saucepot and whisk in dried spices. Paint hot chicken with sauce and serve on bread with slaw and pickles.

For more information:

Hot Chicken Takeover

Follow them on:




For what to do: Columbus, Ohio 

Where to stay: AC Marriott