Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, the chef/owners of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Chicago, opened up about how they are creating a productive, positive environment for everyone who walks through the doors of their acclaimed high volume restaurant, whether it's their dedicated staff, the steady flow of loyal fans, or suppliers who provide them with quality local ingredients.

You can hear more about their success as kind, thoughtful operators during their NRA Show 2016 education session, The New Way to Run a Restaurant.

What inspired you to build a better work environment?

We started working together 11 years ago with Sunday Dinner Club, which is still a business here in Chicago. We do small dinner parties for 20 to 25 people. It's a community dining club with rotating menus that change frequently and that's where we really developed our sensibilities as business owners.

It was so small and intimate, which gave us a strong connection between customers and staff. We were very conscious of how our business was being run and how it felt so different from the restaurants we had been working at previously.

Around five years ago, we started working on opening Honey Butter Fried Chicken, a high volume quick service restaurant. We wanted to create the type of a place that employees were proud to be a part of.

How do you manage the high volume while maintaining a positive work environment?

I wish there was a formula. It’s not any one thing that makes our place special, but with our strong roots based in the Sunday Dinner Club, that ethos is there. To emulate the things we love about Sunday Dinner Club, like bridging the gap between farmer and diner and our team along with truly taking care of people—that ethos runs through this place.

We were very conscientious in how we designed the space so that it put people at ease with the friendly, welcoming, casual, fun environment. It speaks to all walks of life and people like that. We certainly do, too.

The way we treat people has a profound impact on our overall business. We focus on having respect for people and their time, opinions, space, thoughts, and personalities. We compensate better than anyone else in the industry and offer great benefits like paid time off, paid sick leave, parental leave, and insurance. We use a progressive practice when it comes to treating our staff and customers in a way that focuses on their needs. That really translates to their emotional state and their state of being. If they’re taken care of, they feel better and that makes the space feel great. They have the ability to make a mistake—because we’re all human, so it happens—and instead of getting stuck in the muck, they can deal with it in a positive way and rise to the challenge.

How do you recruit people who are a natural fit for this type of operation?

We look for people who are kind and hardworking, people of integrity. We don't necessarily look for five years of line cook experience, but we want someone who is interested in being kind, working hard, and learning more about our business to help it succeed. We don't use any unorthodox recruiting methods, but we do have a great vetting process. The language of our job postings are pretty appealling because we really try to think through everything we do and write strong job requirements that reflect the roles. People come in with an optimistic view of opportunities here, and we have very low turnover.

We don't yell. If you're looking for something aggressive, that's fine, but you're not going to get that here. We put a lot of responsibility on our new hires and existing staff to take action and make changes when they see things that could improve the environment and make this place even greater.

How does your model influence your menu prices?

We include our employees in conversations about finances and we’re all working together to control costs. The financial state of our company informs our strategic decisions related to controlling costs in big and small ways. We price our food appropriately so we can serve great ingredients like cage-free and antibiotic-free chicken. You get this great food and it’s like being part of building a great community. We have been very busy and our menu prices reflect that.

Speaking of employees, how do you involve them in the decision-making process?

We have a system of making changes in the restaurant that involves our three bottom lines. We value our food, service, and finances equally and tend to not make changes unless they positively affect each bottom line. We make changes called "bottom line change," which we borrowed from Zingerman's in Ann Arbor. It's a simple road map that includes writing a vision, figure out why you want to make changes, budgeting, getting staff buy-in and feedback, and then the strategic action plan to make the change happen. Involving our staff in those changes and getting their feedback has helped us lift everyone up.

If we want to make a change, it positively impacts the whole business and creates good energy. We're growing and busy, so we need to evolve to adapt to the shifting needs of the business. The way we do it helps bring our team together.


We had a fry cook come up with a whole new way of rotating fryer oil that saved us $500 a week. It was something that no one would have come up with had they not been familiar with our expenses, but because he was, he was motivated to come up with a solution and implement it.

We do these things because we want to create a place we enjoy being at and because it's just a better way to do business while still being profitable. Getting our team connected to the financial health of the business will help us grow over time.