A pair of Tempe restaurants is fighting for the appetite of nearby college students, and doing so in what could be considered a similar fashion: by featuring menus of chicken, chicken and more chicken, along with a side option or two for good measure.
At Bad Mother Cluckers and Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers – two establishments that sit less than a mile apart on University Drive in front of the ASU Tempe campus after both opening in the same month of August last year – poultry is the main attraction, albeit in two distinct styles.
Sam Graves, head cook, operating partner and manager of Bad Mother Cluckers said he didn’t consciously think about entering the chicken-only business, but set out to “come as close as possible” to a place he remembered from Northern Virginia, where he’s originally from. He provides “savory char-grilled chicken at its finest,” he says.
A two-minute drive separates Bad Mother Cluckers and Raising Cane’s, but the cooking style itself sets the restaurants apart.
“Theirs is a real nice fried chicken finger, and ours is a grilled item,” said Graves. “It’s almost like they may as well be two different meal experiences.”
Todd Graves – notably the founder and CEO and a fry cook and cashier of Cane’s – opened the first Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers in Louisiana, near the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, and has expanded to create a fast-food franchise around the country.
Graves’ admiration for In-N-Out Burger inspired his creation and passion for chicken fingers.
Justin Micatrotto, chief marketing officer and a partner of MRG Marketing and Management, which operates Raising Cane’s franchises in Nevada and Arizona, said the whole model is based on simplicity.
“A very core product but everything is centered around our one love: fresh, never frozen chicken tenderloins,” said Micatrotto.
With three restaurants in Arizona under its belt, his company is zeroing in on the the Valley with the ASU location playing to the unique collegiate audience.
“The thought process and the business model was to go right to a university as quick as you can,” said Micatrotto, adding that businesses can build loyalty from the younger crowds.
While students remain on slim budgets, their want for value is something that attracted Graves to choose a location right off of Mill Avenue.
“I don’t think any of us recognized the highly competitive nature of the area around here,” he said, adding that the location and young demographics played into the business model.
“Our whole philosophy of doing business is we want to offer good value, combine that with unique flavors and hopefully that will draw volume,” he said.
The profits of both businesses expectedly grow with the excitement of football games and late college nights, but Arizona’s small poultry market has not contributed to keeping costs down, as both restaurants obtain their main ingredients from other states.
“Dealing with chicken compared to ground beef is not even close to what the food costs,” said Micatrotto. “We’re paying a premium for it being fresh, never frozen
“We’re paying a premium for it being a tenderloin piece, so the profit margins are a little more difficult to hit,” he added.
Additionally, reining in the students can be a game in its own right.
“We don’t even pretend to think that people know who we are,” Graves said. “We are still working very hard at getting the attention of the student population.”
So far, feedback from customers has pushed Bad Mother Cluckers to embrace an expansion of offerings to include a backyard, live entertainment and even a growth in menu. Some non-chicken items have been embraced, too.
“The expansion isn’t away from chicken,” he said. “If there’s a way to accommodate (the customer), then let’s do so.”
Before each location opened, both outlets researched the availability of chicken-centric options; each also claim to have the best product in town – leaving the ASU and Tempe communities with two solid dining options.
“We have unique flavors that I have not been able to locate anywhere else,” Graves said Bad Mother Cluckers. “We have great folks here who really care about what they’re doing.”
“There’s good stuff out there,” said Raising Cane’s Micatrotto. “I absolutely know you can try any place, but you’re going to be coming back.”