'It Was Like a Drug': How Dave's Hot Chicken Grew a Cult Following in an East Hollywood Parking Lot
What started as a parking lot pop-up expanded to 67 locations in less than five years. Here's how Dave's Hot Chicken became one of the fastest-growing food chains in the country.
There's not much traffic going west towards Hollywood, but Dave's Hot Chicken is nonetheless crowded at noon on an ordinary Tuesday. Checkered red trays holding piles of steaming, crispy chicken make their way through the maze of customers lined up to order, and they eventually land at the tables of hungry diners filling the outdoor patio. Behind the counter, there's more staff than usual. "That's some of our Middle East team," says Dave Kopushyan, the Dave himself. "We're opening a location in Dubai this summer."
Dubai is exciting, sure.
But so is Miami. And Nashville. And New York. And Toronto. And almost every corner of California.
Dave's Hot Chicken, which started as four lifelong friends making chicken in a parking lot (with only one fryer), has grown into a global franchise with 67 locations across the U.S., Canada and now the Middle East, and it counts celebrities like Drake as investors.
"We catered his birthday party one year," Kopushyan says. "That was insane."
The story of Dave's Hot Chicken is a rare tale of overnight success, one that restores faith in the age-old cliche that dreams really do come true. But the brand's explosive growth didn't come easily.
Four childhood friends — Kopushyan, Arman Oganesyan, and brothers Tommy and Gary Rubenyan — felt like they were at a roadblock in their lives, and they wanted to build a business that could support their families together.
"We wanted to create something that we were passionate about," Oganesyan says. "We put our heads together and thought, Dave loves cooking, Tommy and Gary love business, and I love marketing, so we could all find our passion and strength within this."
The concept of hot chicken, though, was the last thing they expected to be their winning business (especially Kopushyan). He was not only an experienced chef trained under the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, but he was also a vegetarian.
Kopushyan credits Oganesyan with turning him onto hot chicken once it started trending around LA. "I knew for a culinary guy like Dave, he'd taste that and want to make his own version," Oganesyan says. It was the first time Kopushyan had eaten meat in almost a year. Game over. "That was it. I started obsessing," Kopushyan says, "I tend to be very extreme; I think we all are. When we get into something, we get into it all the way."
And if there's anything the story of Dave's Hot Chicken can attest to, it's that to be an expert or create something of unmatchable quality, you really do need to go all in, not just rely on talent or a winning concept.
What then ensued was months of research, tasting every fried chicken in Los Angeles and fine-tuning their own recipe — over and over and over again. "We'd wake up, eat some chicken, make our own chicken, watch a documentary on chicken, and we'd do this every day for months. If we ate a meal that wasn't chicken, it felt like we were taking steps back in our recipe," Kopushyan says.
How did they know it was finally ready? When they got parental approval. "When our Armenian parents and grandparents said, 'This is good,' we looked at each other and were like, 'Ok, this is good' — because they hate everything," Oganesyan says.
The friends' families served as the brand's first loyal fans, with the Rubenyan brothers' mom being the one to urge them to actually start the business. After months of slaving over the perfect recipe and scraping together $900 for one fryer, she asked: "What're you guys waiting for? Start tomorrow."
The founders set up shop in an East Hollywood parking lot, and although they only made about $40 the first night, stragglers became crowds, and $40 turned into $80, which turned into hundreds, thousands and a cult following that would wait hours for the team's one-of-a-kind chicken and fries.
"It was like a drug," Oganesyan says. "Seriously, back in the parking lot we sometimes had people come after we sold out and ask to buy crumbs."
"It was crazy," Kopushyan says. "We were like, 'We're not going to sell you crumbs dude,' and they'd be like, 'I just can't get the taste out of my mouth.'"
Despite the success, operating a business out of a parking lot wasn't without its logistical challenges. For example, the parking lot didn't actually have any parking spots, so customers would need to find parking, head over, and then wait upwards of two hours in line. (The one fryer could only make about 18 orders every 25 minutes.)
So, how did they draw (and keep) the crowds?
Related: 25 Tips for Earning Customer Loyalty
The trick, the founders say, is a high-quality experience, sure — but it's more about offering an unparalleled product. "If the food is not good," Oganesyan says, "People will only come back for the experience one other time."
This checks out, especially knowing how much the friends worked on the recipe before serving it up to the crowds. It wasn't uncommon, they say, for early customers to come every single day — a composite of loyal fans that only grew as they made the transition from parking lot to storefront.
As the founders' business became everything they'd hoped it would be and more, they say it didn't always feel promising, and through endless obstacles and roadblocks, they had to push through to bring the brand where it is today.
"Of course it's hard not to get discouraged," Oganesyan says, "You're like, 'How are we actually going to do this?' We didn't even have the tools necessary to do what we were trying to do, so it was easy to just stop believing in it, but we had to push hard day by day to work towards it even when we didn't know what it would be."
When the friends set up shop in the East Hollywood parking lot in 2017, they never imagined that just nine months later they'd have enough capital to open their first brick and mortar location — which also quickly blew up and drew crowds. One location wasn't enough, but they knew they couldn't expand alone. Their concept caught the attention of the investors behind Blaze Pizza, and they signed a contract that eventually helped them open franchises across the country, noting that without the help of a corporate franchise team, they'd "probably only have six stores." The new national presence not only attracted Drake, but also other high-profile investors like Samuel L. Jackson.
Although the four friends are grateful for their "overnight" success, they haven't forgotten the grueling hours, manual labor and discouragement they endured before getting to where they are now. They believe that enjoying the process of starting a business is crucial, even in moments of frustration or adversity, and that entrepreneurs must accept it all as part of the journey.
"You just have to be present for all of it," Kopushyan says, "And you have to believe in your product and use that motivation to keep going."
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