This fast casual brand has a mission to mainstream Jamaican jerk chicken in Australia

The Jerk co-founders Michael Abdel and Shane Francis talk to QSR Media about the concept’s origins, its approach to growth and how it is offering an in-store experience post-COVID.

Jamaican jerk chicken has been a fixture in small businesses, but for Michael Abdel and Shane Francis - it’s high time for it to have a larger spotlight in the fast casual space, seeing potential in the cuisine to be widely received by Aussies.

Enter The Jerk, which, in Abdel’s words, aims for jerk chicken to do “what Nando’s did for Portuguese chicken” in the country.

QSR Media spoke to Michael Abdel and Shane Francis on the journey that led them to this concept, their thoughts about the chicken market and their approach to growth.

QSR Media: For those unfamiliar, what is The Jerk? How did it come about and what did you see in Australian fast food chicken market that made this concept viable?
Michael Abdel: The Jerk is a Jamaican Jerk Chicken restaurant chain. I’ve always been obsessed with chicken - it’s been a constant throughout my career. When I first opened my agency, Sphere, one of our first clients was a KFC franchise. We did some Local Area Marketing for them that delivered big sales and before I knew it, we were working with most of the KFC franchises on the Eastern seaboard.

Then in the early 2000s, I discovered Nando’s. I fell in love with the brand instantly and decided to get in touch with the owners. I wasn’t actually trying to win the advertising account – at the time they only had a handful of restaurants - I simply wanted to diversify and open a Nando’s franchise. And I did. I was one of the first ever Nando’s franchisees in Australia!

So, that’s how I ended up running Sphere and a Nando’s franchise at the same time. I was either very naïve or very crazy! Over the course of around three years, I built a good relationship with the head people at Nando’s and they were kind enough to give me some leeway to run my own promotions for the store through Sphere. We started putting together some fun promotions and campaigns, and they proved to be such a huge success that Nando’s asked if they could use our work for their other stores. It was an exciting time. Looking back, I’m extremely proud of the partnership. Together, we were able to take Nando’s from a handful of stores to over 300 restaurants.

I’ve loved my experiences working on other people’s food and beverage brands, but I think at some point I got that yearning to put all that I’ve learned over the years into action to create my very own food and beverage brand. Everything I’ve done so far has culminated in this brand.

Finally, it made perfect sense to make it a Jamaican jerk chicken brand as I love jerk chicken, but more importantly, Jamaican food is hot in the global cuisine scene at the moment and I believe its popularity is only going to grow.

How will The Jerk be different from other chains in the country?
Abdel: Over the years, my agency would occasionally have staff or client dinners and on those nights, I’d love introducing people to Jerk chicken at a couple of small Caribbean restaurants I knew about.

Everyone always loved the chicken and couldn’t believe they hadn’t tried it before. But that’s the thing - it’s very hard to find good Jamaican Jerk Chicken in Australia. As a country we excel with our diverse food offering, but for some reason Australia has never really discovered the joys of Jamaican Jerk Chicken. That’s something we hope to change with The Jerk. I want to do for Jerk Chicken what Nando’s did for Portuguese chicken.

Jamaican food has been quickly growing in popularity around the world and I believe it’s set to become the next big thing here, too. There’s no other brand in Australia that has a flavour profile quite like The Jerk. Plus, we’re one of only a handful of QSR chicken brands in the world that offers both fried and grilled options as part of its core offering.

Another key thing that makes The Jerk special is that we’re about more than just the meal. We’ve taken into consideration that in a post-COVID world, consumers will be desperate to go out and really enjoy a complete experience. For us, the brand represents an explosion of flavour plus great music and great vibes.

A look inside The Jerk's first restaurant. Photo: Supplied

What are your short-term and long-term goals for the chain? (i.e. initial expansion plans, target locations, etc.)
Shane Francis: First and foremost, our focus right now is on absolutely perfecting our offering and delivering the best possible experience at our first store.

From there, we want to create steady, sustainable growth. Our ultimate goal is to make Jamaican Jerk Chicken a convenient and viable weekly dining option for all Australians for the first time ever.

Any particular investment/partnership opportunities you guys are looking to do to ensure COVID safety, ease of experience, etc.?
Francis: We’ve really embraced technology to deliver a better experience for customers. One way we’re doing this is through touch screen ordering which will create great time savings with the kitchen and wait staff.

Any other comments you’d like to make?
Francis: If you haven’t experienced it before, please come down and experience the wonders of Jerk Chicken - and don’t miss out on the cassava chips either - they’re a must try!

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