VIVA Chicken Celebrates a Decade of Growth
Peruvian restaurant that started in Elizabeth has grown to 16 locations since 2013
At 11 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2013, VIVA Chicken opened its doors to its very first customer on Elizabeth Avenue in Charlotte. The fast-casual Peruvian rotisserie chicken joint was the first of its kind in the area, and that made co-founder Randy Garcia a little nervous.
Would Peruvian food work in Charlotte? Was this a mistake? Would VIVA Chicken last?
Garcia became convinced that the answers to these questions, and subsequently the fate of his restaurant, depended entirely on this first customer’s experience.
“I remember all of us kind of peeked around the corner while he was eating just to see his facial reactions — this was our first actual paying customer — because we wanted to see, does he really like it? Is he kind of liking it?” Garcia recalled.
The customer ended up loving it and came back the next day with five people in tow. Garcia said VIVA Chicken has been spreading that way ever since.
“People come in, we give them a great experience and the rest takes care of itself,” Garcia said.
Ten years later and it seems the rest really has been taking care of itself. Since opening day in the Elizabeth neighborhood, VIVA Chicken has expanded to 16 restaurants with more than 500 employees across the Carolinas, Georgia and Utah.
The company has also undergone a visual rebranding with the help of Charlotte marketing agency Black Wednesday, weathered pandemic shutdowns and supply chain woes, and added services like catering, online ordering and an app.
In celebration of its 10th anniversary, VIVA Chicken partnered with Amélie’s French Bakery to create a limited-edition churro-inspired macaron that can be purchased at Charlotte area VIVA Chicken restaurants and the NoDa, Park Road and Carmel Commons Amélie’s locations through March 10.
It’s a pinch-me moment for Garcia, who said VIVA Chicken’s decade of growth feels surreal. For him, it seems like just yesterday that he and co-founder Bruno Macchiavello were coming up with “this little idea” for a Peruvian chicken concept.
At the time, the longtime friends hoped to have one, maybe two, successful locations; they never imagined it would take off like it has.
From the streets of Peru
Garcia grew up around fine dining at his parents’ Italian restaurant, Villa Antonio, which opened in Charlotte in 1987 and operated two locations on South Boulevard and in Ballantyne Village.
Macchiavello was the head chef there and Garcia helped him as a kid in the kitchen by washing dishes and prepping ingredients. Macchiavello moved to Florida when the family sold Villa Antonio in the early 2000s, but later returned to work at Garcia’s father’s restaurant, Bistro D’Antonio in Waxhaw. They stayed in touch and over time, Macchiavello, a native of Peru, and Garcia, whose wife is from Peru, began talking about opening a Peruvian chicken place together.
“In Peru, there’s a rotisserie chicken concept on every corner,” Garcia said. “They all have different names, all competitors, but there’s one pretty much on every corner.”
When they eventually decided to launch VIVA Chicken — pairing Macchiavello’s family recipes and expertise in the kitchen with Garcia’s front-of-house experience — the initial intent was to have two locations at most. But before they could even think of expanding that far, they knew they had to execute and succeed on the first one, Garcia said.
VIVA Chicken’s signature dish is the authentic pollo a la brasa (Peruvian rotisserie chicken), cooked just like its found on the streets of Peru. It’s hand-marinated in a secret spice mix for 24 hours then slow-roasted on a rotating spit in a charcoal-fired oven. Customers can order a quarter, half or whole chicken with a choice of various sides like yuca, cilantro rice, sweet potato fries, plantains and canary beans.
Three Peruvian sauces are made daily at each restaurant — aji amarillo (mild, yellow), huacatay (medium, green) and rocoto (hot, red) — as well as house-made juices like maracuya (passion fruit juice) and chicha morada (Peruvian purple corn, cinnamon, clove, pineapple, apple and lime).
VIVA Chicken offers vegetarian options, salads, soups, sandwiches and desserts (churros and tres leches). Other popular dishes include the arroz cha (Peruvian fried rice) and the quinoa stuffed avocado (organic quinoa, avocado, red pepper, rocoto mayo, balsamic vinaigrette). Both come with the option to add chicken.
“One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is, even though it’s called VIVA Chicken, I would say about 40 to 50% of our menu is or can be vegetarian,” Garcia said.
Building a following
Garcia was nervous to open the first VIVA Chicken location, but its close proximity to Uptown Charlotte, Central Piedmont Community College, and Novant and Atrium hospitals wasn’t what concerned him.
“In 2013, people had no idea what Peruvian food was. I would say the extent of Hispanic food in Charlotte at that time was Mexican food,” Garcia said. “Our biggest fear was, how are we gonna get people to come in and try Peruvian rotisserie chicken when they have no idea probably where Peru is on a map or what kind of food they have?”
In their first several weeks as restaurateurs, Macchiavello and Garcia kept VIVA Chicken’s prices low, barely breaking-even, and offered free delivery within a five-mile radius, though they nixed that pretty quickly once it became too time-consuming for Garcia to deliver meals in his personal vehicle.
They were just desperate to get customers in the door, Garcia said.
“That was our biggest obstacle to overcome,” he said. “Because we felt like once they were in the door and they tried it, they’d be hooked.”
And they were right; as word spread and business picked up, VIVA Chicken began garnering a hefty following.
Garcia attributes their initial success to his and Macchiavello’s daily presence in the restaurant, which helped develop meaningful relationships within the community. Employees working at nearby hospitals also made up a huge chunk of their business, prompting VIVA Chicken to expand its ordering processes.
In 2014, they opened a second location in the Toringdon Circle Shopping Center near south Charlotte’s Ballantyne neighborhood, followed by a third in Huntersville, eventually spreading to South Carolina, Georgia and Utah — with more to come.
Though VIVA Chicken has experienced success and growth, the restaurant was not immune to pandemic hardships; they had to pivot to stay profitable — offering neighborhood drop-offs for bulk orders and finding workarounds during supply shortages.
It was also a challenge to find certain ingredients, like Peruvian peppers, which are used in all of VIVA Chicken’s sauces.
“It’s not like we could just go to Harris Teeter and find some of these things. We pretty much had to cherry pick from a lot of places between ordering online, paying double, triple the price of what we’re used to, because we couldn’t be without certain products,” Garcia said. “People can’t go to VIVA Chicken and not have the sauce. There was also a chicken shortage. Can you imagine VIVA Chicken not having chicken?”
The values of VIVA
As VIVA Chicken continued to expand, Garcia and Macchiavello began to fear what would happen when they couldn’t physically be at every location. The duo, which also owns the Charlotte-based restaurant Yunta, didn’t want the growth to cloud their core values: a passion for food, an obsession for service and a love for people.
Garcia said Macchiavello is passionate about using the best quality ingredients, regardless of the price, and he never wants to serve a product that’s not right, which comes from his experience as a chef. Garcia joked that his own background in fine-dining probably caused him to over-serve when VIVA Chicken first opened in Elizabeth.
“I would go around the dining room with my water pitcher and fill up guests’ waters, which, at that time for a fast-casual restaurant, like who’s doing that?” he said. “Still to this day, it’s all about service for me,” he said. “A guest should never have to get up for anything. We should anticipate guests’ needs.”
Over the years, the company has raised more than $122,000 for various charities — 50 cents of every churro sale goes to No Kid Hungry. Employees have also collected hurricane relief funds for the American Red Cross, packed backpacks for Classroom Central, and participated in other local initiatives.
“Day one, when we opened in 2013, it was the local community that accepted us, that supported us, and ever since then, we just feel like we’re indebted to whatever community we’re in, whether it’s the Elizabeth location or Greenville,” Garcia said. “The community is the reason we’re successful, and so no matter how big we get, we never want to lose sight of that.”
It’s been 10 years and Garcia still watches to make sure diners are enjoying their food, just like he did with the first customer at the Elizabeth location.
“I always want to be sure a guest has a great experience, no matter how many stores there are and how many guests come through that door,” Garcia said. “I still have that same mindset of peeking around the corner.”
Garcia’s goal is to never take his success for granted, but what we’ve seen from the outside speaks for itself.
This work by Queen City Nerve is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.