Customers began to arrive at HNT Chicken shortly after the fast-food restaurant opened its doors at 11 a.m. on a recent weekday.
A group of men strolled in, asked the cashier if the place had just opened and remarked that they had skipped Wendy’s to try the new joint. Another gave a thumbs-up after a couple of bites of a chicken sandwich.
HNT Chicken, which stands for “hot n’ tender,” opened its first location in the United States Dec. 20 in a former Pizza Hut in the sprawling commercial area surrounding Philadelphia Mills mall in the Far Northeast.
It’s a venture being led by 19-year-old Bucks County native Ronak Pandya, son of Jay Pandya, who heads a franchise empire that includes dozens of Dunkin’ Donuts, Checkers and Rally’s, Pizza Huts and other chains.
The younger Pandya has ambitious plans. This week, he plans to open two more HNT Chicken restaurants in Philadelphia — one in Oak Lane and another in Hunting Park — and an additional location in Connecticut.
Over the course of the next four months, he wants to open 40 to 50 stores, at a pace of about two a week, in the Philadelphia area as well as in Boston, Toronto, Connecticut and elsewhere. It doesn’t stop there.
“We’ll have about 100 by spring of 2021 and then just onwards and onwards and onwards,” said Pandya, who grew up in Newtown.
He believes the track record and resources of his family’s company, Pandya Restaurant Growth Brands, and a combination of experience and fresh ideas will lead to the success of the expansion.
“Our plans, they are very aggressive, very ambitious, but I think that it’s very feasible and very reasonable for us to think that we can do that just because of how well we’ve done in the past with all the other chains that we have and how strong we are in this market,” Pandya said in an interview with the Times.
However, it’s the first time the Pandya family has introduced a chain into the U.S. market.
HNT was founded in Brazil and has about 50 locations there. Jay and Ronak Pandya met its founder, Dany Levkovits, at a Las Vegas restaurant convention a few years ago and developed a relationship with him.
PRGB purchased the brand’s North American expansion rights, effectively creating a separate entity, Pandya said.
As he is overseeing the growth of HNT Chicken, Pandya will be continuing his education at Babson College in Massachusetts, where he studies entrepreneurship. For the upcoming semester, he plans to spend three days at school before driving back to Philadelphia for the remainder of the week.
It’s a lot of travel, but Pandya said it will give him time to make the rounds to all the newly-opened restaurants.
Some may also say it’s a lot for a 19-year-old, but Pandya says he grew up in fast-food and has worked every job in the industry over the past three or four years.
“Since I was 10 years old, every summer, every break, even weekends, I’d be going to (my father’s) office, going into restaurants just learning things,” he said.
There’s also plenty of industry knowledge backing him up. Pandya said he will be consulting his father, Levkovits and Steven Maskin, founder of Moonbeam Capital, a private equity fund.
Maskin is a friend of the elder Pandya, and Ronak said Moonbeam could come on as an investor or partner in HNT Chicken in the near future.
As for the food, Ronak said the menu still contains some “Brazilian flair.” There are chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches and other combinations, and the menu also offers nine sauces, including HNT Classic, Thai and blue cheese.
The chicken is “as fresh and as crispy as it can be, and we pride ourselves on that,” Pandya said.
There are also some healthier options, including $8.99 bowls that feature grilled chicken, rice, vegetables or tofu.
HNT Chicken, 477 Franklin Mills Circle, is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. ••
Jack Tomczuk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.