Nashville Heat Wave Creeps North

Consumers’ craving for regional American specialties finds its latest obsession

Talk to any Nashville, Tenn., resident and they will say, “What took you so long?” Hot chicken is just now gaining the reverence it deserves outside of the Music City. And with millennial and Gen Z c-store customers after hotter, spicier and more eclectic fare, this fiery riff on fried chicken seems ready-made for a turn in c-store foodservice.

Deep-fried, seasoned with a blistering cayenne-based spice blend and served with humble white bread and dill pickles, hot chicken is the focal point of some burgeoning fast-casual concepts, including Joella’s Hot Chicken in Louisville, Ky.; Big Shake’s Hot Chicken & Fish in Franklin, Tenn., and Lexington, Ky.; and Nashville Hot outside of Cincinnati.

Joella’s uses a variety of spice blends to provide different levels of intensity, sources only local chickens and offers self-service craft-beer draft stations that charge customers by the ounce. Gus’s, based in Memphis, Tenn., has the largest number of locations among the hot-chicken flock, with 15 stores across nine states.

Increase in incidence of the term “spicy” on c-store menus last year
Source: Technomic MenuMonitor

The trend isn’t reserved for niche players. KFC rolled out its own Nashville-style hot chicken at the beginning of the year. After what the company called its most successful product test in recent history, the Louisville, Ky.-based chain unveiled it for a limited time in all of its locations just before the Super Bowl. It plans to bring it back in the future, perhaps in an attempt to build a cult-like following similar to other annual limited-time offers such as McDonald’s McRib.

Want to scout legendary hot chicken at the source? Check out the iconic Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack or relative Nashville newcomer Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, which opened in 2012 and has since become a fixture with two locations in Nashville and a third location in Birmingham, Ala.