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Bloomington-Normal restaurant owner Aaron Francis leans on lessons from his parents during 'huge growth spurt'

Aaron Francis stands at the bar
Ryan Denham
Aaron Francis is the owner of the Pop-Up Chicken Shop and Love Shack restaurants in Bloomington.

Bloomington-Normal has a lot of restaurants. But few are as busy as Pop-Up Chicken Shop.

Fed by demand for its signature hot chicken, Pop-Up Chicken grew from a hidden gem inside a VFW into its popular standalone location on Hershey Road in Bloomington.

The owner is Aaron Francis, the 33-year-old son of two Asian Indian immigrants who instilled in him a love of food and hospitality. Francis opened his second restaurant (the smash burger joint Love Shack) in November and will add a second Pop-Up Chicken location in Normal in April.

“I’m in a huge, huge growth spurt. That’s my biggest challenge, which is a good challenge. Because I’m ready for it,” said Francis, noting his new Pop-Up Chicken location is on Main Street near the Illinois State University campus. “I’m sitting right next to a McDonald’s, a Jersey Mike’s, a Chipotle, Noodles & Company, Buffalo Wild Wings – I’m surrounded by multibillion-dollar corporations! And I’m ready to take them on. Because I truly believe my food is way better than all theirs. My customer service is way better. My brand is better.”

Francis wants to grow the right way, which he’s done so far.

Francis credits his 55 employees as being a big part of that success. He said proper compensation makes that possible.

“A lot of people aren’t getting paid correctly (in the restaurant industry). That’s something I 100% strive for. Every single one of my employees has a livable wage,” Francis said, adding that his consistent customer base makes that doable. “I’m not gonna say any names, but other restaurants have that. But to be honest, they keep the money for themselves. I’m giving out all my money to my employees. This is an employee-based corporation. You gotta keep them happy.”

Francis said 10 of his employees make more than he does.

“I’m not here in the restaurant industry to make money. I’ll be completely honest. I’m here for the legacy of my family. I do it because I genuinely love seeing people eat my food and then reacting to how good it is. That’s why I’m here,” he said.

That passion for hospitality, he said, comes from his parents. They immigrated from India in 1981. His father was an Episcopalian priest. His mother was a registered nurse and an amazing cook. Francis was her sous chef from a young age. His parents often hosted dinner parties.

“That’s one thing my parents instilled into me. First and foremost, they always took care of other people,” Francis said.

Francis opened Love Shack in November. It serves up nostalgic smash burgers, where the custom triple-blend meat – “like what you’d see in a steakhouse,” he said – is the star of the show. He said the concept was popular in LA, and he wondered if he could replicate it here.

“The town was lacking that kind of cuisine,” Francis said.

But he did acknowledge central Illinois has a strong history in burgers already – places like Green Gables in Hudson and Krekel’s in Decatur. Steak n Shake started in Bloomington-Normal, after all.

Francis is now adding his own name to that list.

“My end goal is to change the map of how we eat in Bloomington-Normal," said Francis, who'd like to someday open dozens of Pop-Up Chicken Shops around Illinois. "It’s only beginning.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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