This Southern Biscuit Business Was Taking Off When It's Founder Died Suddenly. Here's What Happened Next. The team at Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken came to understand "the ultimate measure of a good leader."

By Carl Stoffers

This story appears in the September 2023 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Courtesy of Rise Souther Biscuits & Righteous Chicken

The unthinkable happened to Rise Southern Biscuits & Righteous Chicken: The company's founder and CEO, Tom Ferguson, died unexpectedly in February 2022. That left his team mourning his loss, but also wondering — how can this brand survive?

The answer, it turned out, came from Ferguson himself.

He was the "heart and soul" of the brand, says one of his business partners, CFO Ken Priest. Ferguson was a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, and provided Rise with both vision and taste. Before his death, the Durham, North Carolina-based biscuit franchise had been on a steady upward trajectory, with 17 locations and more than 100 in the works. And although Ferguson planned to lead the company for a lot longer, his principles and future plans ultimately guided the company in his absence. Here, Priest explains what happened next.

Related: Grief and Loss Can Seriously Impact the Ability to Work. Here's How to Create a Workplace That Supports Those Going Through It.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Rise Souther Biscuits & Righteous Chicken

How did you get involved with franchising?

My career with Rise was kind of an accident. After enjoying a meal there, I shared some feedback with the brand on some easy potential improvements they could make. Before I knew it,

I was one of the first franchisees with the brand and working with [former CEO] Tom on a daily basis. After my locations became some of the highest-performing in the system, Tom invited me to join the corporate team.

Tell me about the company prior to Tom's passing.

We all worked really close together and had developed plans for a couple years out. So the overall movement of the company is the same as it was when Tom was here. Tom was the kind of leader who encouraged a lot of opinions and then made the ultimate decision. He and I read the tea leaves on what we thought was going to be the future, and in a lot of ways, we hit some home runs. Four years ago, we were asking questions about AI taking orders in the store, phone ordering, AI texting, all this stuff that you're just starting to hear people talk about. We're still on the same trajectory.

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When something tragic like that happens, I imagine there must be a huge shock, followed by bewilderment.

Absolutely. There's lots of classes and seminars you can take about restaurants, finance, whatever, but there isn't one that teaches you what to do when your partner passes. So in a lot of ways, we are writing the class for ourselves. But the rest of the team realized that none of us could be Tom. So our working relationships have changed, and we've gotten closer because of it. As a community, we're definitely closer than ever.

How has the company done in its effort to push on?

We've had a lot of great success, and we're trying to just build on that success. We're not talking about turning 180 degrees in any different direction, right? We're looking at how we can get better with technology, and our whole filter for everything at Rise is food, people, and technology. So all we're doing is expanding upon that in those areas, along the same lines that have made us successful.

Is it safe to say that the founding principles of Rise are still working, even as the company moves forward?

Absolutely. The roots were put in the ground by Tom, and none of us will forget that, but lots of different people make this brand great. The ultimate measure of a good leader is — and I hate saying it this way — when he doesn't have to be around for things to work correctly. Tom made his values and principles such an ingrained part of Rise that the company has been able to move on. And our goal every day is to keep moving.

Related: How to Run a $259 Million Business While Raising Kids: 'You Go Through a Period, Like, 'Is Everything Gonna Be Okay?''

Carl Stoffers

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Business Editor

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