Raising an Empire
Restaurateur of the Year Todd Graves talks entrepreneurship, Baton Rouge, and chicken
By Kasey EmasPosted Jan 2, 2013
Founder, CEO, fry cook, and cashier Todd Graves turned what was once a college dream into a national sensation.
In the early ‘90s, Graves presented a business plan for a restaurant that served only quality chicken finger meals. After receiving the lowest grade in the class, Graves took matters into his own hands and presented his concept to any and every investor that would listen. Following several failed attempts, Graves moved to Alaska, worked up to 20 hours a day on a Sockeye Salmon fishing boat, and returned to Baton Rouge with enough money to be taken seriously.
Shortly after his return, Graves obtained an SBA loan and began working on renovating an old building at the entrance of LSU. Inside, Graves fell in love with an old mural that inspired the design for the Raising Cane’s logo. The name came from his dog, Raising Cane, who used to hang around the building site. The restaurant opened in 1996.
It has been 16 years since “the mother ship” of the franchise opened on Highland Road. Baton Rouge’s premier chicken finger restaurant now has nearly 150 locations in 17 different states.
Dig had the opportunity to meet with Graves at the original Raising Cane’s where it all began. In this exclusive interview, get to know the man behind the concept, and what it takes to become an entrepreneur.
DIG: You have grown your business from one restaurant near the LSU campus to nearly 150 locations in 17 different states. Why has Raising Cane’s been so popular?
Todd Graves: I believe it’s our laser focus on doing one thing – fresh, never frozen, chicken finger meals – and doing it better than anyone else, coupled with our great crew and active community involvement, [that] has made us a brand that customers connect with.
DIG: Is it true that you worked on an Alaskan fishing boat to raise money to start Cane’s? What was that experience like?
TG: It was incredibly challenging and rewarding. I flew to Alaska and hitchhiked to Naknek. We camped on the tundra for a month until we got a job on a boat. It was sort of like you see on Deadliest Catch. Boats would toe the line and jockey for position, sometimes ramming each other. During the peak of the season we would work 20 hours day. It was dangerous work, but I was young. I came home with enough money that people realized I was serious about my dream for a chicken finger restaurant. I was able to get a small group of investors and a small SBA loan.
DIG: What is in the future for Cane’s? Where do you plan on expanding next?
TG: We will continue growing in adding over 30 new restaurants system-wide next year, most located in the Southwestern and Midwestern parts of the country.
DIG: You named the restaurant after your dog, “Raising Cane.” Why the name? You now have Cane II. Will you continue the Cane legacy for future pets?
TG: The name of the restaurant was going to be “Sockeye’s Chicken Fingers” after the Sockeye salmon I fished for in Alaska to raise money to start the restaurant. Luckily, a friend convinced me to name the first restaurant after my dog, “Raising Cane.” During the renovation of the first restaurant, Raising Cane used to hang around the building site. The first Cane was a friendly yellow lab who loved to be around people. Raising Cane I has since passed away. My wife Gwen surprised me with a yellow lab puppy one Christmas, and I fittingly named her Raising Cane II to continue the legacy of our namesake. Cane II has become a very popular and well-known dog, and stays busy with restaurant visits, community activities, and is often with us at our Restaurant Support Office. Cane II is now 13-years-old, and she has become such a big part of our brand and our culture that we will continue the Cane legacy. From her pet therapy visits to traveling across the country to restaurant openings, Cane makes people happy wherever she goes, and Gwen and I would like to continue that.
DIG: Tell us a bit about the business’ community involvement.
TG: Community involvement is a part of Canes’ DNA. Our community involvement began during the early days at Cane’s I at the North Gates of LSU. I was so appreciative of our customers’ patronage and making my dream happen.
Supporting campus organizations was a way to show my appreciation. Since then, it has evolved into a core aspect of our brand. It’s as much of who we are as our ONE LOVE. While we support thousands of organizations and causes throughout the country, we have five key areas that we focus our involvement:
• Education: Students make up a large portion of our customers and crew, so supporting schools and universities is a natural fit for us.
• Feeding the hungry: Being a restaurant company, this makes sense for us.
• Pet welfare: Obviously we love dogs, so supporting pet welfare organizations and ways ?people can enjoy their pets, like dog parks, makes sense for us.
• Active lifestyles: We believe that Cane’s can be a part of a healthy lifestyle, so we support organizations that promote active living.
• Business development/entrepreneurship: I know firsthand how hard it is to start a ?business, so we want to support other businesses.
We have thousands of other organizations.
DIG: I lived in Columbus, Ohio for a few years, and we would wait in long lines to get Raising Cane’s by the Ohio State campus. Did you ever think your product would be in such high demand all over the country?
TG: When I opened Cane’s, I knew that LSU students here would love it, but I really didn’t think beyond that first restaurant. Once we started opening restaurants outside of Baton Rouge, I knew that we could be successful in other markets. We now have nearly 150 restaurants, and I love to travel to openings and see our excited customers lined up.
DIG: During the Baton Rouge Entrepreneurship Week Pitch Night, you were the largest investor, with over $100,000 pledged. Why did you decide to make such a big splash?
TG: I love entrepreneurs and their passion excites me. There were so many great business concepts and passionate entrepreneurs, and I couldn’t help but support them.
DIG: What kind of angel investor are you? Do you like to take a hands-on approach, or are you a silent investor?
TG: Most of my effort and energy goes into Raising Cane’s, so I’m definitely more of a silent investor, but function like a mentor when advice is asked for and in business planning.
DIG: Would you recommend Baton Rouge for start-up businesses? ?
TG: Absolutely. The Baton Rouge community embraces entrepreneurs’ new businesses, and this community is very loyal. So much of our success is attributed to the people of Baton Rouge.
DIG: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur looking to start a business in Baton Rouge?
TG: Utilize the great resources and networks right here in Baton Rouge. From SeNSE and RIO Louisiana Business and Technology Center to the Tech Park, BRAC to SCORE, Baton Rouge is a hotbed for entrepreneurs. And I am very excited about the momentum the entrepreneur community has created to make Baton Rouge a great entrepreneurial area.
DIG: What was your experience on the Fox show Secret Millionaire?
TG: It was an incredible, life-changing experience. We got to know several of the most selfless people and great leaders, true angels walking the Earth. The experience taught my wife Gwen and I that we can always do more to support our communities.
DIG: You just got back from the Himalayas. What did you do there?
TG: One of my best friends and I spent a week in Nepal. We went to the Base Camp of Everest. We also hiked the Himalayas and visited Kathmandu and Lumbini (birthplace of Buddha). The beauty of the Himalayas and how friendly the people of Nepal are is hard to put into words. It was an incredible, life-changing experience.
DIG: How has your life changed since Cane’s began?
TG: My life has changed a lot in the past 16 years. I met and married my wife. I have two kids, Sophia and Charlton, and I have a restaurant company that employs more than 5,000 people. That’s a lot of responsibility, and it’s a lot of fun, too. I think I have matured as a leader, but still have just as much to learn as I always have.
DIG: Besides your headquarters being in Baton Rouge, what has kept you and your family here all of these years?
TG: Baton Rouge is my home. I love it! I like the people, my friends, the restaurants, and LSU. I also like where we are going as a community. It’s where I grew up and where I choose to raise my kids. I live on the LSU lakes, and I can’t think of a better place for me, my family, and my restaurant’s headquarters.