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Chicken restaurant chain's new CEO relishes the post's challenges

The former CEO of the Tampa-based chicken chain decided it was time for "term limits."

Kep Sweeney was named the new CEO of PDQ, a 62-store chain specializing in chicken.
Kep Sweeney was named the new CEO of PDQ, a 62-store chain specializing in chicken.
Photo by Mark Wemple
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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Most politicians dislike term limits.

It seems logical that CEOs would too. After all, they usually have great pay and benefits, and they are the top leaders in their worlds, with all the perks that can bring.

The motivation to resist giving up power was not the case at the Tampa headquarters of PDQ, a 62-store fast food/fast casual, chicken-focused dining restaurant chain, where executives recently decided to swap leaders. Taking over the CEO role for co-founder Nick Reader is Kep Sweeney, the company president for three years and a former chef who was once honored by the late Julia Child.

Reader says he is happy with the arrangement as he moves to a "founder role," and will spend some more time at his other ventures. He will also be able to spend more time with his two older sons, who attend the University of Notre Dame, and his 11-year-old son, who lives at home.

Reader says Sweeney has more than earned the role after helping him and the other PDQ founder, Bob Basham, navigate through crisis after crisis, starting with COVID-19. Sweeney was hired in early 2020, right as the coronavirus began to cause illness and havoc within the United States.

Sweeney, once a young chef who later went back to school at the University of North Carolina to get his MBA, went about facing COVID-19 in a methodical way, Reader says. Sweeney can implement systems well, and during that crisis, he kept track of the company's 62 stores and 15,000 daily transactions, Reader says.

But the shockwaves that followed also challenged PDQ in unique ways. First, the company had to deal with the "Great Resignation," which raised chicken prices because of fewer factory workers, and then avian flu hit earlier this year, causing higher historic prices for a pound of chicken. 

All the while, PDQ had to keep a sharp focus on its employees' satisfaction as well as the guest experience, which both Reader and Basham highly value given their successful past roles in restaurants and hospitality.

Price of poultry 

Founded in Tampa in 2011 by Reader and Basham, the first PDQ store opened across from Plant High School on South Dale Mabry Highway.

Reader had been CFO for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when Basham recruited him to help with PDQ (which stands for People Dedicated to Quality). Basham co-founded Outback Steakhouse in Tampa, and his next venture depended on good management. For almost a decade, things went quietly well. The chain grew from that one location to now being spread across five states.

Reader and Basham, ever the restaurateurs, also have other interests. Reader is co-owner of Tampa's Rocca, an Italian restaurant which earned one star from Michelin. And the pair are also partners in concepts such as Bare Naked Kitchen, Glory Days Grill and Streetlight Taco, which, according to a statement, is coming soon to Tampa.

Just before COVID-19, Reader began suggesting to Sweeney, then a restaurant consultant at CR3 of Dallas, to come aboard. Sweeney had a good-paying job, and didn't need to make the jump, Reader says. But he did. Then the great challenges began, and Sweeney's initial plans as president "were out the window," Sweeney says.

The trio was able to manage through COVID-19 without shutting a store or major losses. The group also managed to keep employees happy and hold steady employment levels, even as chicken farmers and factories had trouble.

But then the chicken-based food sector was hit with avian flu. That was followed by the war in Ukraine, which hit grain prices after it began in early 2022. The triple whammy of labor shortage, grain prices and avian flu caused historically high prices for the famously stable chicken commodity, Reader says.

While a pound of chicken usually cost $2.40 per pound, prices more than doubled to $5.33 per pound. The $10 meal at PDQ was suddenly threatened, Reader says.

Sweeney was a big help in getting PDQ through the problem, Reader says. Sweeney says he went to work looking for efficiencies and found a few, including decreasing shipping costs.

"We tried to find money in the couch cushions," says Sweeney.

Sweeney also had to work the farmers and factories, instead of the other way around. Usually, chicken sellers have to sell the buyers. But with prices high and fewer chickens, the buyers were sometimes told they would only get 25% of their usual shipments, Sweeney says.

"Anyone who got poultry was lucky," says Sweeney.

PDQ's response was a small price increase, with Sweeney determined not to pass the crisis prices in a big way on to customers. Sweeney and the executives continued to work the phones and the producers.

"We worked very hard on the relationships," says Sweeney. "To make them happy."

Key indicators

Sweeney, 60, the MBA and former process-management consultant, is comfortable talking numbers, and he says companies must focus on data and technology.

But he notes Basham and Reader have two key metrics.

"Bob is always, always, always guest focused," says Sweeney. "And Nick is always, always, always employee-focused. That is why they are such a good team."

And while Sweeney focuses on numbers, metrics, key performance indicators and the like, Basham and Reader told Sweeney he could manage the problems they faced if he focused on guests — and not profits.

The company's immediate plans are to open one new store in South Florida. In six months, the company will also produce an outlook on expansion.

For now, Sweeney, whose past work life includes stints at Salomon Brothers, CR3 ands Acceleron Group, wants to "chop wood," and give the chicken lover the best value for the money. It's a job he relishes.

"For me, this has been the single best work experience in my life," says Sweeney. 



Jim Stinson

Jim Stinson is the Business Observer's Tampa Bay business reporter and editor, having previously written about business and policy in Washington, D.C.; Rochester, New York; Gary, Indiana; and Daytona Beach. He attended Boston University for business and Indiana University for journalism.

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