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Holding his company’s 2019 Cobb Chamber Small Business of the Year Award on Monday is Otter’s Chicken President Will Peterson, second from right. Others pictured are, from left, Doug Andrew, general manager of Otter’s Kennesaw location; Jenna Grothaus, director of marketing for Otter’s; Peterson’s wife Leslie Peterson; and Mike Knowles, senior vice president at Wells Fargo Bank.

CUMBERLAND — A Cobb-based restaurant has expanded in recent years despite stiff competition from others in the chicken market, and on Monday, added another feather to its cap.

Otter’s Chicken was given the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce Small Business of the Year Award on Monday morning at a ceremony at the Cobb Galleria.

“Without our customers, we wouldn’t be here,” said Will Peterson, president of Otter’s Chicken in his brief remarks during the ceremony after receiving the award. Speaking after the event, the 2003 graduate of McEachern High shared some of the story behind the restaurant’s beginnings.

“A lot of people ask why we decided to open Otter’s, and the answer there is I’m the oldest sibling of four, and we grew up playing sports here in Cobb County. There was always the argument afterwards of ‘Where are we going to eat?’ — Dad wanted a beer, Mom didn’t want to take us to a bar,” he said. “So we wanted to open a restaurant that was a mix of both, where it’s very family friendly. We still serve alcohol, and Dad can have that beer without it feeling like you’re bringing your kids to a bar.”

As for their food, Peterson said he and his company respect others in the chicken industry, such as Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, but “think of ourselves as different.”

Everything on Otter’s menu can be ordered fried, grilled or tossed in one of eight wing sauces, with the chicken fried in a 100% high-grade soybean oil that contains zero grams of trans fat.

“First, we’re a fast casual, not fast food, so we focus on the service element of the restaurant business. We just try to do one thing and do it really well, and so we’re chicken tenders and wings,” Peterson said. “If you want a hamburger, we’re not the place, but if you want really good fried chicken, grilled chicken wraps, salads, we’re the place to come to.”

Founded as Peterson Foods LLC in 2009, the company began working on its first Otter’s store, which opened in The Avenue West Cobb along Dallas Highway in June 2010. Opened as a franchise location of Otter’s Chicken, which was originally based in Nashville, Tennessee, it was at the time the chain’s seventh location, with four others in Nashville and two in Louisiana.

“We started to grow and had success pretty quickly, and in 2013, we were fortunate enough to be able to purchase the rights of the whole concept from the parent company, and we shut down the remaining stores and have been focusing our growth here in Cobb County since then,” Peterson said.

The company, now operating under the Otter’s Chicken name, has since expanded in Cobb, opening in Cumberland and Kennesaw. Its fourth location opened in February in Carrollton in west Georgia. It is the chain’s first franchised store. A fifth location will open later this year in Acworth near Cedarcrest Road and Cobb Parkway, and Peterson said the company hopes to eventually expand throughout the Southeast.

Otter’s has about 125 employees across its four sites, and among them is Jenna Grothaus, a 2010 graduate of Hillgrove High who has been with the chain from the beginning, starting as a cashier at the west Cobb restaurant and moving up to restaurant manager before becoming the company’s director of marketing.

“I had just graduated high school and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I just grew to love the place, just because I feel I learned more from working there than I did anywhere else, the people I grew to love, all of our customers and employees,” Grothaus said.

The chain also focuses on schools and local athletes, with each location displaying a “Player of the Week” board that honors a student athlete from each of the five closest high schools. Honorees are given a free meal during their week on the board.

In the past year, Otter’s was also named to the Inc. 5000, which ranks the country’s top 5,000 fastest-growing private companies. Companies must have been founded and generating revenue by the first week of the starting calendar year, and therefore able to show three full calendar years of sales. Additionally, they have to be U.S.-based, privately held and independent —not subsidiaries or divisions of other companies — as of Dec. 31 of the last year measured. Revenue in the initial year must have been at least $100,000, and revenue in the most recent year must have been at least $2 million.

The Cobb award, meanwhile, is finally coming to the coop of the chicken chain after Otter’s was nominated multiple times in recent years, with Peterson tallying five years in the competition’s top five finalists and six years among the annual 25 nominees.

As the Cobb Chamber’s 2019 Small Business of the Year, Otter’s Chicken will compete in the state’s small business of the year competition.

Otter’s Chicken was named the winner out of five finalists for the award, with the other finalists being AquaGuard Foundation Solutions, Fulfillment Strategies International Inc., North Georgia Staffing and RE/MAX PURE.

The remaining companies in the top 25 small businesses of 2019 were:

♦ Artisan Custom Closets

♦ Assured Comfort Heating Air & Plumbing

♦ Brookwood Christian School

♦ Deluxe Athletics

♦ DeNyse Companies

♦ DynamiX

♦ Elder Law Firm

♦ The Employment Law Solution: McFadden Davis

♦ Georgia Trade School

♦ InPrime Legal

♦ The Marietta Local

♦ Mills Specialty Metals LLC

♦ Poole’s Pharmacy

♦ Roam Innovative Workplace

♦ SpeedPro Imaging Marietta

♦ Three-13 Salon, Spa & Boutique

♦ Tom + Chee Kennesaw

♦ Vertisys

♦ Williamson Bros. Bar-B-Q

♦ Yalo!

Additionally, the Chamber’s Small Business of the Year program has been expanded to recognize new businesses and startups that have launched less than three years ago with the Businesses To Watch awards.

The 2019 Businesses To Watch were About You Family Medicine, Afonza, Gator Pizza, Governors Gun Club Kennesaw and Little Red Bird Gifts.

Follow Jon Gargis on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JonGargis.

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