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Dave’s Hot Chicken, fast-food chain backed by Drake, debuts in Sonoma County

It started on the street as a pop-up stand on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles in spring 2017.

Under the lights in a parking lot, four guys who had pulled together $900 to buy a couple fryers made chicken tenders and served them with kale slaw and fries. It was cash only to taste their twist on spicy Nashville-style chicken.

The name on a small sign at the stand was Dave’s Hot Chicken.

Dave is Dave Kopushyan, a chef trained at the Art Institute of California’s former Los Angeles campus and under renowned chef and restaurateur Thomas Keller at his former Bouchon restaurant in Los Angeles. In the Napa Valley, Keller runs Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery, along with The French Laundry in Yountville.

Now it’s Kopushyan’s six heat levels from lite mild to Reaper (super-hot) spices on the chicken tenders and sliders featured at 25 Dave’s Hot Chicken fast-food restaurants, including a new one officially opening Friday at 2240 Mendocino Ave. in the Safeway shopping center in Santa Rosa.

The kitchen crew of Dave's Hot Chicken restaurant learn the flow of the orders in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The kitchen crew of Dave's Hot Chicken restaurant learn the flow of the orders in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

In culinary school, “Dave was known as a spice nerd,” said Bill Phelps, CEO of the upstart chicken chain and the largest of four private investors who own minority interests in the company half-owned by the four co-founders.

They are the spice guy’s childhood friend Arman Oganesyan, the chain’s marketing/social media expert, and brothers Tommy and Gary Rubenyan.

What has transpired since the four men started serving spicy chicken four years ago is the first chapter of a planned national expansion to open 500 Dave’s Hot Chicken eateries in the U.S. and Canada. Although it’s an ambitious rollout, this chicken purveyor has major food and entertainment industry experience and pizzazz backing it.

Drake performs on stage on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Toronto, Canada. He is an investor in Dave’s Hot Chicken. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)
Drake performs on stage on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Toronto, Canada. He is an investor in Dave’s Hot Chicken. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Besides Phelps, co-founder of Southern California’s hand-rolled Wetzel’s Pretzels chain, investors include food veterans Rick and Elise Wetzel, plus actor Samuel L. Jackson and Canadian rapper/hip-hop artist Drake.

By intention, Phelps said, the four co-founders are using the business model the Wetzels followed with their latest national food venture, the Blaze Pizza chain. They enticed basketball legend LeBron James to invest in the business, giving it instant name recognition.

Dave’s Hot Chicken leaders are banking on Drake’s star power to draw brand awareness, franchisees and media attention. There will be no chicken spices or sandwiches named for Drake, but he’ll be making occasional appearances at the chicken restaurants.

Drake liked the spicy chicken, and after meeting the founders and “hearing their story, I jumped at the opportunity to invest,” he said in a statement.

Inside each eatery, the walls are adorned with street artists’ artwork tailored to the respective area. But the headliner is the chicken served with no spice or mild, medium, hot, extra-hot or the Reaper spices.

The latter is made with Carolina Reaper peppers, purportedly the world’s hottest pepper. Before customers can order the chicken tenders topped with the Reaper, they have to sign a “general release” waiver acknowledging they understand the extreme heat packed in this spice.

The new Dave’s Hot Chicken restaurant held a “soft” opening, an opportunity to train the staff for invited guests, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
The new Dave’s Hot Chicken restaurant held a “soft” opening, an opportunity to train the staff for invited guests, in Santa Rosa on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Phelps acknowledged the release is mainly part of the chain’s marketing strategy, but it also serves as a warning to the few consumers who want to try the over-the-top spice that is “so hot it’ll blow your head off.”

Along with the Santa Rosa location, Dave’s Hot Chicken is opening this week in Houston and another site in Southern California.

The chain also has outlets in Texas, Las Vegas, Portland and Toronto. By year end, Phelps said the business plan calls for 40 restaurants. After that, the co-founders will keep moving across the nation and Canada to honor franchisee commitments for 500 restaurants.

Dave's Hot Chicken spices their fried chicken from mild to the “Reaper” in their new Santa Rosa location on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Customers will be required to sign a waiver when they order the super spicy Reaper. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Dave's Hot Chicken spices their fried chicken from mild to the “Reaper” in their new Santa Rosa location on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Customers will be required to sign a waiver when they order the super spicy Reaper. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The Santa Rosa location is the first for regional franchisee Ali Kerachi and business partner/brother-in-law Ali A. Karachi. They hold the rights to open Dave’s Hot Chicken stores in Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Contra Costa counties and part of Alameda County. They plan to open 13 of them in the next 42 months in the region, including another one in Sonoma, either in Rohnert Park or Petaluma.

“We tasted a handful of original Nashville hot chicken, and this hands down was the winner,” said Kerachi, also operator of a dozen Roundtable Pizza places in the North Bay, explaining why he bought a Dave’s Hot Chicken franchise.

Phelps called the Southern California food enterprise a business story of spicy chicken mixed with “entrepreneurial flair,” noting the first media write-up online in May 2017 by Eater Los Angeles under the headline, “East Hollywood’s New Late-Night Hot Chicken Stand Might Blow Your Mind,” started a feeding frenzy.

“The next day they had two-hour lines and they’ve never looked back,” he said of chef Dave and his three friends who started Dave’s Hot Chicken.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Bomberger at 707-521-5246 or paul.bomberger@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BiznewsPaulB.

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