April 30, 2024

The Pickleball Effect: Building a Brand on Backyard Community – Kelli Alldredge | President at Chicken N Pickle

For our 17th episode, President & CCO Ethan Whitehill chats with Kelli Alldredge, President at Chicken N Pickle, about the rise of pickleball, the power of human connection through sports, and the key to localizing at scale.

Ethan Whitehill: Hi everyone. I’m Ethan Whitehill, president and COO of Crux, the un-agency. Welcome, once again, to our podcast “To the Point.” Thanks for joining our conversations that get to the crux of it all to help businesses elevate their brands and amplify their missions. 

Today’s guest is Kelli Alldredge, president of Chicken N Pickle, a unique indoor/outdoor entertainment concept started in Kansas City with locations across the country, providing an atmosphere that fosters fun, friendship and community for all. 

Kelli’s career path began as a student at Kansas State University (KSU) where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in kinesiology with an emphasis in health promotion. Immediately upon graduating, she worked as a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs. Kelli became a competitive tennis player after college and was a national champion in World Team Tennis in 2013 and 2020. Her love of sports, health and helping people led her into a decades-long career in personal training. Kelli is co-founder of Jamie’s Wish Foundation and the Chicken N Pickle Foundation. She also serves on the board of directors for Christo Ray High School, Heart of KC, Clay County Bank and Savings and the KSU Kinesiology Advisory Board, as well as the KSU Health and Human Science Board. Kelli, welcome to the pod! 

Kelli Alldredge: Thank you. So glad to be here! 

Ethan Whitehill: We’re thrilled that you’re here, especially considering how busy you are. Before we get to all that, I want to back up. You’ve had a really unique journey throughout your career and it’s punctuated by major athletic achievements. From your degree to cheerleading for the Chiefs to national tennis titles and now your role at Chicken N Pickle. What has inspired this active lifestyle? 

Kelli Alldredge: I’ve always been active. I love exercising and I think that stems from having two sisters. I had a very athletic dad, so we played every sport – multiple sports at one time – every sport. And I couldn’t get enough of it. I was the one that wanted to do everything, thinking I could play two sports in one season. So, it’s always been a part of my life. I think back to high school, and if you were to ask any of my high school friends, they would say that I was nuts. I would go workout before high school at the YMCA, and I met so many amazing people. We’d get ready in the locker room, go to work, then I’d go to high school. It’s always been a part of who I am. 

Ethan Whitehill: Your clock speed is just higher than most. Let’s fast forward a little bit. From tennis, you discovered pickleball at some point. When did you first hear about pickleball and how did you become so involved with the sport and ultimately Chicken N Pickle? 

Kelli Alldredge: I love sharing my story. I started as a customer. I was asked to go play pickleball at Chicken N Pickle by a tennis friend of mine. I found myself completely oblivious to what pickleball even was, or where North Kansas City was, let alone where this place called Chicken N Pickle was located. I remember the day I left, I told my husband that I was going near the airport, committed to playing pickleball. I said I have no idea what I’m getting into, but I should be home around four o’clock. So, my first trip to Chicken N Pickle, I fell in love with the game. It was a instant. It was a blast. 

I started playing on a very regular basis every Sunday with my tennis friends, and that is how I met Dave Johnson. Dave Johnson is our fearless founder. He joined our group, and we just became friends, acquaintances and fell in love with the venue and with pickleball. 

Now, at that time I was helping fundraise for a cancer center very close to the original Chicken N Pickle in North Kansas City – KU Cancer Center up on Green Hills Road. I had this idea that I’d love to host a charity pickleball tournament. This was back in 2017. People didn’t know what pickleball was, and I just thought this could be a really cool fundraiser. 

I approached the founder one day after pickleball and asked if he would love to host a charity event. He  threw up his hands like, “No, but I’ll give you the courts and you can figure it out. We’ve never done it.” 

So, I jumped in, still as a customer. I spent a lot of time working with the small but mighty staff at Chicken N Pickle. They had not even been open a year. They’d been open about six months planning this charity event, and Dave was so generous. He did say, “I’ll give you the courts. I won’t charge you, but you have to figure this out.” 

We planned it in January. I wanted it to be a win-win for Chicken N Pickle. I was so grateful they gave us the courts. Long story short… we had over 250 people there. Sold out the event, ran two different brackets of a pickleball tournament, had a silent auction and a live auction. Dave stopped in, and I think his mind was blown. Just, “Holy cow! It’s eight degrees and the restaurant is absolutely booming!” 

When he tells this story, he expresses how many people came up and said, “I’ve never been here. I didn’t realize how close it was. This is amazing. I’m bringing my family back. Thank you!” So many people were just showing gratitude to Chicken N Pickle. 

But what’s amazing was that it was one of the best days of business they had had since they had opened their doors. What I remember about that day is that we raised over $80,000 for KU Cancer Center. What Dave remembers is, “Holy cow! I just gave away a lot of my space, but we had the best day of business since we’ve opened our doors.” 

We joke that before I got home from that event, I had an email from Dave to meet him on Monday. In my mind, I thought he’d probably want a recap and maybe make a playbook of what we did, but I walked in his office and he looked right at me and said, “I want to hire you.” And I looked right at him and said, “I love my life, and I’m not looking for a career change.” 

So, we went back and forth, and I agreed to work part-time with Chicken N Pickle because I saw this vision, I saw this amazing venue, this amazing sport of pickleball, and I just kept thinking it can do so much for the community. It’s not busy 24/7. I just had this fire knowing that it could do so much. 

So, I agreed to part-time and that lasted 30 days. It was very quick. If anyone is thinking about going to work for a startup, I would say do it. It presented an opportunity that I never would’ve had before that Monday I walked in his office. It completely changed my life. 

Ethan Whitehill: It sounds like you presented opportunity too. 

Kelli Alldredge: It was a two-way street, that’s true. I started part-time on my bulletin board in my home office. I still have my first card: charity coordinator. I was hired to find a way to connect with the community and then slowly a responsibility was added to oversee pickleball. Then, marketing. Even when I really didn’t know what I was doing. I want to be very clear about that. I never had the mindset I had to be an expert. I just had the mindset that I have to be knowledgeable, and I have to learn. I was so hungry those first few years launching into this whole new space. 

Long story short… I was named president. I had seven or eight different titles on this journey. I did look at him and say, “I hope this is my last title change, because if not, that’s going in the wrong direction.” 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s a great story. Just to back up for our listeners a little bit – you probably must be living under a rock if you don’t know what it is – but briefly, what is it about pickleball? 

Kelli Alldredge: It’s so funny, because you’re right. I think back to the time I started at Chicken N Pickle. Fifty times a day I had the conversation explaining pickleball. To our world now, it’s so different. The game is so inclusive. Anyone can play pickleball. I think that’s the magic, and it’s intergenerational relationships. We see them all the time on our property. 

One of my favorites – she’s a beautiful woman that lives in Mission Hills, and she plays with the firefighters once a week. Grandparents and grandkids, anyone can play. It’s this simple game. It’s really old school, and on the days we’re pulling our hair out, going crazy, we remind ourselves it’s a plastic ball and a paddle. Like, let’s not overthink. But the game is beautiful, and it’s inclusive and anyone can play. To play pickleball, you can’t be holding a cell phone. You can’t be on your laptop. There’s no digital interaction, and it’s really refreshing. 

Ethan Whitehill: The first time I ever played was at Volley Llama. I got signed up to be on Crux’s pickleball team, so it was just me and one other person. And I did surprisingly ok. 

Kelli Alldredge: That’s another thing. You pick it up quickly. It’s a little different than golf or tennis where there’s a big learning curve. I like to say you pick it up three times. So, when I see a new guest I’m like, “Promise me you will play three times, because then it’s all going to click.” 

Ethan Whitehill: I love that. Then that guarantees you have three visitors. 

Kelli Alldredge: That’s exactly right. 

Ethan Whitehill: So, let’s talk about Chicken N Pickles’ model. It’s unique because it balances food and hospitality, and it wraps it all in this great guest experience. How is the company able to do so many different things? 

Kelli Alldredge: The first thing that pops into my head is our founder. He’s fearless. He’s a visionary. We don’t feel like we can fail, right? That is the mentality. Try it! What’s the worst that could happen? So, we have this freedom in building this company, but there’s so many layers to Chicken N Pickle, and our staff is so diverse. We have so much knowledge in vastly different areas, but we are all working together for this common goal. 

I think about our director of culinary, and our operations team, and our events team, and our pickleball team, and our HR team, and our IT, and accounting and community team. We all have one goal: we want to make an impact. That’s it. We truly believe Chicken N Pickle not only makes an impact in the communities we are in, but we change lives. We see it all the time, and it’s so fun. We are this gritty, scrappy little staff, and we just show up every day knowing we are making an impact. 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s amazing. And you’re not just making an impact in Kansas City. You’ve had some explosive growth over the last three years, and it’s interesting how you’ve been able to capitalize on the rise of pickleball, as well. Or maybe you’re responsible for the rise of pickleball, in part. What does that mean when you grow that fast and you’re scaling? What does that look like from the inside? 

Kelli Alldredge: It’s fast. I feel like our days are like a pinball machine. It’s almost so fast. We don’t take time to step back and reflect enough. We just opened our tenth location last week, and our first in Houston. We’re in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Glendale and Arizona. We opened last year. Our next location will be Las Vegas. We have two in Denver coming, one in Omaha and one in Fishers, Indiana. It’s humbling. It really is. But it is a lot of effort. 

We do have to be intentional. How do we feel locally even though we’re going into new markets, and we don’t want to be known as this Kansas City place. Oh, this Kansas City place is opening in Las Vegas. We don’t want that. We want to be this really cool local spot that just opened. 

We’re very intentional. Each property’s different. We have local murals, we have branded pickleball courts with different city flags and state flags. We have the Charlie Hustle heart here in our Kansas City courts, and we do local food sourcing and local beers. We just try to be very intentional at staying local and knowing what we’re good at. Our goal is for people to come in, set down their cell phones, detach and focus on human connection. 

Ethan Whitehill: I have to go back to something you said earlier, because I think that localization is probably correlated to the community engagement as well, right? 

Kelli Alldredge:  Yeah, absolutely. 

Ethan Whitehill:  As you get involved in the community, as you localize, you get involved in their causes and – just talking about that community impact coordinator role – what does that look like? What does that mean within your organization? Maybe tell our listeners a little bit about that side of the business and the Chicken N Pickle Foundation. 

Kelli Alldredge: Absolutely. We have a full-time community impact coordinator at every location, and their job – I tell them this every other week when we meet – is to wake up and make their community better. I don’t care how big or how small. They do have a monthly to-do list: donate so many meals, host so many charity events, go visit so many elementary schools. 

Not everyone can come to Chicken N Pickle. We will bring it to you. We go to a lot of veteran communities. We go to the inner cities. They can’t always afford to reserve a court and come to us. So, every day they are doing something, and it’s a role we hire prior to us opening in a community in year one. They are so busy just connecting, connecting, connecting. 

We host some massive events, but it’s the cadence of the everyday stuff, the small stuff no one knows about. We don’t post about this. That’s not why we do it. We try to stay very grounded. We do it to make a difference, but it’s that cadence of the everyday stuff they’re out there doing that has really brought us local and lets us have that local feeling. 

Ethan Whitehill: We’ve learned that you move quickly. You’re always very active. Obviously, Chicken N Pickle is keeping you busy, but you’re also busy outside of Chicken N Pickle doing a lot of board service. Why have you made that a priority, and what would you say to another leader who thinks they’re too busy to serve? 

Kelli Alldredge: I know, and trust me, there’s times I’ll look at my calendar and I ask myself why I committed to this, but at the end of the day, it’s the most refreshing thing I do. I serve on multiple boards. I grew up with this quote from my mom, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” That has always stuck with me. Like, one person can make a difference, and I better try. 

You’ll go to a board meeting, or you’ll go volunteer your time with a nonprofit and it’s the only time out of my day. I am not thinking about Chicken N Pickle. I’m not thinking about all the emails I need to respond to. I detach from work, which in a weird way refreshes me at the end of the day. So, I do love making a difference and I think anyone could relate to that feeling when you give and an impact is made. 

Serving on these boards and seeing how my brain just shuts off and thinks about someone else for an hour or two or three a day is really refreshing,a nd it makes me a better leader. It gives me perspective. I stay humbled. You meet incredible people along the way. Some of the most fascinating people in Kansas City are who I’m on these boards with. I’m learning that I do it because I do want to make an impact, and I believe one person can. The benefits are unbelievable. 

Ethan Whitehill: I have to imagine you get some strategic perspective when you’re on a board that sometimes is a little harder to see in the day-to-day of your day job, so to speak. 

Kelli Alldredge: Absolutely. We started our own Chicken N Pickle Foundation in 2020. It was always a dream of mine. During COVID, the pandemic, we had to lay off a lot of our staff. Our world was rocked. It’s almost like we opened a whole other business. I had researched so many companies that had an employee relief fund and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to create a fund for our employees that were not able to come into work every day where they could apply for assistance through hardships. So, I did. I dropped everything. It took about four weeks, but we got this foundation up and running. 

It is still very much an employee-based foundation. Every chance we get, we involve our employees. We just wrapped up something we call “Mustache Month.”  If you were at at Chicken N Pickle in February, we might’ve looked a little weird. We donate $100 to every employee who grows a mustache. 

Ethan Whitehill: I’m assuming this is men and women? 

Kelli Alldredge: Yes, it is. And those women wear those stick-ons every day. 

We also donate $100 in their name to pediatric hospice around the holidays. We’ll grant the stores an amount, and it’s so fun to see what they come up with and what they do. Read Across America is coming up this week, and our store employees get to pick the book. We go out to communities, and we read to the classrooms. So, the foundation is very employee driven. 

Our Employee Relief Fund is still active. It’s pretty incredible. It’s not a loan; it is a gift. And we’re actually starting a Chicken N Pickle scholarship, which we’ve been working on for about 10 months. I want to be a part of their lives today, but in 10 years I still want to be a part of their lives. I want them to remember, “Chicken N Pickle helped get me here.” 

Ethan Whitehill: I love that goal. I think that’s beautiful, and it does make me wonder how many employees you have. 

Kelli Alldredge: We have 2,000. We just opened that tenth location. 

Ethan Whitehill: A lot of lives that you’re touching. 

Kelli Alldredge: It really is it. If there’s one thing that humbles me, that’s it. And boy, our employees. They’re awesome. 

Ethan Whitehill: Knowing that, what is on the horizon for Chicken N Pickle? 

Kelli Alldredge: We have 10 open, and we will open six more in the next two years. So, where my head is today is getting these next six open. What’s exciting is that five of them are in a brand-new market. So, it’s one thing to be opening our third in Dallas, and it’s very different to have our first in Omaha, first in Denver, first in Fishers. Our development team is very active in finding those next sites. We try to be sure and not announce until we are 100% going. We have a perfect track record, so we want to keep that. And if there’s one thing we’re really focused on internally, it‘s that anyone can play pickleball, and we mean that. We’re really trying to break some barriers and make sure the world knows anyone can play. 

Kelli Alldredge: We’ve launched a pair of pickleball leagues and clinic. We’ve partnered with Special Olympics. We have done several Down syndrome family nights and autistic family nights. We do it a little differently. We dim the lights, use a different ball and softer music than every other court. Anyone can play. 

So yes, we’re opening six more stores. Yes, we’re looking for the next batch, but we’re so focused on letting the world know this game is for everyone. Everyone is welcome on our property. Our properties are so inclusive and there’s so many people that don’t believe they can play pickleball yet, and we want to change that. 

Ethan Whitehill: What I so appreciate is that it sounds like you are on a mission. 

Kelli Alldredge:  Yes, we are. 

Ethan Whitehill: It’s very clear you’re on a mission, and it also is clear to me that you’re very self-aware. It seems like Chicken N Pickle is very self-aware. You’re staying true to your roots and the things that really created the brand in the first place, and you’re extending it a little bit, but you’re not going too far out from what you’re good at. Is that true? Is that a fair statement? 

Kelli Alldredge: That is a fair statement. And again, it’s simple. I think our property – we want you to feel like you just walked into the coolest backyard ever. We try to be very intentional that you feel comfortable, so you stay for several hours. We don’t want to turn tables. A lot of restaurants, they want you in and out. We’re like, have you played pickleball? We have free cornhole. We’re dog friendly. That’s who we want to be. We want to be that coolest backyard, and we want everyone to know they are welcome on our property. 

Ethan Whitehill: That’s very much the sense I’ve gotten when I’ve gone. I very much appreciate your backyard. Thank you for that. On the self-aware topic, it’s time for my secret question. We’ll see how self-aware you are. I’m rolling my 20-sided die. I rolled an eight. And the question is: what is your favorite movie of all time? 

Kelli Alldredge: Oh, okay. I am being honest. Girls Just Want to Have Fun with Sarah Jessica Parker. I still love Sarah Jessica Parker today. 

Ethan Whitehill: That seems quite on brand. 

Kelli Alldredge: And Helen Hunt! Helen Hunt and Sarah Jessica Parker – my favorite movie. Wonderful. 

Ethan Whitehill: Thank you for that, Kelli. Just in wrap up, how can listeners connect with you and learn more about Chicken N Pickle? 

Kelli Alldredge: Connect with me, please. My email is very easy: kelli@chickennpickle.com. I thrive on human connection, so if there is anything, please reach out to me to learn about Chicken N Pickle. 

We have a great website. One thing that is unique: we have local social media channels for all of our stores in all of our different markets. We do have a HQ account, which is our companywide, but we do have local accounts in every market. So, wherever you are, find that local account, and I think you’ll really get to know who Chicken N Pickle is. We have that both on Instagram and Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, everything else. 

I feel like our personality is really shown through our website and social media, and I really believe we get better together. So, if there’s any questions, anything you want to pick my brain on, I would love to connect. 

Ethan Whitehill: And nonprofits that are interested in doing something with you? 

Kelli Alldredge: Please reach out, because there is nothing better than allowing a nonprofit to use our property for good. That is who we are, and we love that. 

Ethan Whitehill: Well, the weather is looking better and better every week now, so I think I’m going to go to your website and book a court and talk to you a little bit about some nonprofit stuff. So, I appreciate this. 

Kelli Alldredge: Sounds awesome. 


Hosted by Ethan Whitehill

ethan-whitehill-cruxEthan has made a career out of building agencies and growing brands. He founded the firm Two West in 1997, running it as an independent shop for nearly 20 years before combining his firm with an AdAge Top 100 Agency, where he served as CMO. As an agency founder and entrepreneur, Ethan brings a business owner’s mindset to marketing, working on a host of diverse brands, from packaged goods and professional services to hospitality and healthcare.


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