Newsmaker: Chicken N Pickle founder, a business junkie, knows how to ‘set my teeth’

Apr 17, 2020

Dave Johnson is a self-described business junkie who thrives on continuous improvement.

“I can’t imagine selling everything … and just managing my own money in an ivory tower somewhere,” he said.

The serial entrepreneur is involved in three businesses: He founded restaurant/entertainment venue Chicken N Pickle as well as Maxus Properties Inc., now known as Maxus REIT. He also is the controlling shareholder of First Missouri Bank.

“Maybe to a fault, in all the businesses I am in, I look for bad things and how do you make them better?” Johnson said.

It’s a lesson he learned from mentor Al Hagemann, who previously led the tax division at one of the “Big Five” accounting firms, Arthur Andersen & Co. Clients aren’t impressed with a list of problems — they also want solutions.

“So many people in the world stop when they find the problem, and they think they’ve done something, but they haven’t,” said Johnson, who previously was a senior tax manager at Arthur Andersen.

Launching Chicken N Pickle

In a way, Johnson applied Hagemann’s problem-solving approach when searching for Chicken N Pickle’s first site. The North Kansas City native wanted to revitalize the area and picked a spot with a dilapidated warehouse on Burlington Street that he later demolished. His food partner, Bill Crooks, warned that it was a “C” site.

“He said, ‘You’re going to lose a lot of money,’” Johnson said. “But when I set my teeth and I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.”

And Johnson had the capital to lose.

“This has become the ‘Cheers’ of the Northland. People come here two to three times a week,” he said. “It’s exceeded all my expectations — financially and emotionally.”

In the past 18 months, Chicken N Pickle’s revenue has roughly doubled.

In addition to a bar and restaurant, which prides itself on free-range rotisserie chicken, Chicken N Pickle features live music, indoor and outdoor pickleball courts, and outdoor yard games. The pickleball open-format nights attract “a cross section like you’ve never seen” that includes a mix of Johnson County country club members, firemen, retired UPS drivers and others.

Johnson likes that it’s a family-friendly atmosphere that attracts a variety of ages. He also uses the venue to regularly host local charity fundraisers because he wants the community to succeed, he said.

One of his favorite events was the Volley Llama fundraiser for Noah’s Bandage Project to support cancer research at Children’s Mercy. The event raised more than $150,000.

“To see 24 cancer kids come over here and play pickleball with celebrities — it’s magic,” Johnson said.

Weathering a storm

Two months ago, Johnson would have said his toughest challenge was surviving the 2008 recession. Now, it’s COVID-19.

“I frankly believe this pandemic will be the most memorable part of my career,” he said. “There’s no road map. I have nothing to compare this to.”

All three of his businesses are affected in different ways.

The hardest hit is North Kansas City-based Chicken N Pickle, which now has a location in Wichita and one in San Antonio that was slated to open this month.

Another location is under construction in Oklahoma City, and Johnson is waiting to start construction on one in Overland Park.

Johnson temporarily laid off more than 350 employees, leaving the North Kansas City and Wichita locations with skeleton crews for carryout orders. Revenue is down 85% to 90%.

Maxus owns and manages about 12,000 apartments and more than 400,000 square feet of office and retail shopping centers. It’s now working out payment plans with about 1,000 renters struggling to pay rent, and it’s spending several hours with individual retail tenants to navigate a path forward. Although Maxus is trying to be as accommodating as possible, at the same time, its expenses and bills haven’t changed, he said.

The toughest part is the unknown: When will it end? How tall is the mountain?

Even with Chicken N Pickle being in the restaurant industry, he’s confident the business will survive.

“We will come back bigger and stronger. There’s no doubt,” Johnson said. “I’m very bullish on our future. Just tell me when I get to be a bull.”

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Dave Johnson

Title: Founder of Chicken N Pickle and Maxus Properties Inc.; controlling shareholder of First Missouri Bank

Education: Bachelor’s in business administration, University of Missouri

Family: Wife, Sandra Castetter; and grown children, Kelly Johnson and Corey Johnson

Hobbies: Traveling, spending time with friends and organizing events, including fraternity reunions