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Why It's Finally Time for a Fast-Casual Fried Chicken Explosion

Danny Meyer and David Chang are coming for you, Chick-fil-A.

This April, Danny Meyer's burger juggernaut Shake Shack filed a trademark application for "Chicken Shack," and then added a limited-edition chicken sandwich to its Brooklyn menus. David Chang revealed his plans for a fried chicken joint in March at SXSW, and this June swung open the doors to Fuku, a so-called beta test for a multi-unit fast fried chicken venture. The lines, the Instagrams, and the hype around these launches have been nothing short of fever-pitched.

And they're not the only ones getting in on this game. Michael Solomonov's Philadelphia-based Federal Donuts has been threatening a massive expansion for a long time, and it looks like things are actually starting to happen there. The duo behind Charleston's Hominy Grill opened their own fried chicken spot in March. Hot chicken has touched down in Los Angeles thanks to a food truck that hopes to go brick-and-mortar. Welcome to the year of fast-casual fried chicken, the trend pieces can now commence.

Shake Shack's line-inducing chicken sandwich. Photo: Nick Solares

Why Now?

The Race to Be the Next Shake Shack

It's tempting to look at this sudden interest and activity in the fast-casual fried chicken space and wonder why it's taken so long. But in reality the whole notion of fast-casual (or "fine-casual," as Danny Meyer likes to call it), is still very new. The two standard bearers, Chipotle and Shake Shack — so determined by people's propensity to describe new concepts as "the Shake Shack of X" or "the Chipotle of Y" — are each relatively young. Chipotle, though founded in 1993, didn't receive its major investment from McDonald's until 1998, kicking off its rapid expansion in the early 2000s. The first permanent Shake Shack location opened in 2004; the second location followed four years later. And while Chipotle is certainly an inspiration to many, it seems that Shake Shack has recently sparked the imagination and ignited the ambitions of upscale restaurant chefs, who now throw around terms like "scaling."

It's no mystery why so many chefs are after their own Shake Shack. After releasing a Shake Shack IPO, Meyer is now a multimillionaire, proving that chefs and operators with fine-dining backgrounds can succeed in the world of fast food. And a new crop of operators are gambling there's still money to be made in fast-casual.

For chef Robert Stehling and his business partner Dave Uecke, creating a fast-casual restaurant was also a matter of accessibility. They serve plenty of fried chicken at Charleston's lauded Hominy Grill, but the two saw a chance to reach a new market with Chick's Fry House, which opened earlier this summer. "Charleston has been in the boom of restaurants all catering to the high-end," Uecke says, noting "there hasn't been a lot of growth in your everyday restaurant... This is our way to bring fun, affordable concepts to the market." It's no accident Uecke slipped a plural in there. While he and Stehling won't confirm any specific expansion plans, Stehling isn't shy about their growth ambitions: "We have set it up with that in mind... We didn't plan to do anything that couldn't be scaled out and replicated."

Harlem-based chef Marcus Samuelsson echoes some similar sentiment when talking about his latest restaurant Streetbird, where he's been serving various preparations of rotisserie and fried chicken since early April. "I wanted to open a place that was affordable and fun," he explains. He was inspired by the diners of Harlem's past, and energized to bring that into a modern setting created "around the bird." "I was like, 'Okay, I want this diner aspect,' but also, I wanted to be able to have an app so you can order quicker or we can deliver to you. It's one foot in modern life and one foot in something very traditional." The results of this technology-assisted casual experience have been positive: "We serve more customers than I've thought," he says. Still, for Samuelsson, "it's too early in the the idea" to think seriously about expansion.

Chicken Economy: Supply and Demand Talk

New York City barbecue savant Daniel Delaney is also getting in on the fried chicken action, with plans to open Delaney Chicken in a new Midtown food hall/market. (2015 will also be heralded as the year of the food hall, by the way.) While he didn't plan it this way, Delaney did notice an upshot to focusing on chicken now: "The evaluation of chicken at a national level is on the decline." A look at the most recent Bureau of Labor consumer price index shows his point; at the consumer level, chicken prices have remained steady or slightly declined over the past 12 months (compared to beef, whose prices have gone up some 10 percent in the same time). "Chicken is becoming more economical, but that wasn't a reason for us to do it," Delaney says. "We're not that smart, but it may have been a reason why Danny Meyer is looking at chicken or why David Chang is; they're much smarter."

Invariably, what these new concepts are jumping on is a perceived gap in the market. "There was this recognition that fried chicken is an American classic," says Marc Glosserman, CEO of New York City's Hill Country Chicken chainlet (a spinoff of the pioneering Hill Country Barbecue). "It was both a nostalgia for something I'd grown up with that I really wanted, and in New York City I couldn't get — and it was also seeing an opportunity. There was the fried chicken that was being served [by] Thomas Keller or the Blue Ribbon guys — and KFC and Popeye's. There was really nothing in between." Several chefs brought up this dichotomy in conversation with Eater. For many, a lack of middle ground with a food as beloved as fried chicken is an irresistible opportunity.

Glosserman also believes that there is a new type of consumer driving demand for what a fast-casual fried chicken operation like his can offer. "There are so many places that my generation grew up with," Glosserman says, rattling off a list including KFC, Popeyes, and Bojangles'. "But I think this generation of millennials are looking for something different. They don't have the same brand loyalty. They're much more discerning when it comes to the origins of their food." The way he sees it, fried chicken is simply next in line for the culinary upgrade. "We've seen it in burgers and we're seeing it in barbecue, and I think we're going to see it in fried chicken."

Some Hard Truths About Chicken

While filling an inexplicable hole in the market and becoming a nationally-recognized brand sure sounds fun, there are some serious barriers when it comes to doing high-quality fried chicken at a high volume. Consistency is a struggle for any restaurant, but especially for a fast-casual restaurant with expansion ambitions; a Fuku chicken sandwich in New York City should taste exactly like a Fuku chicken sandwich in, say, Dallas.

Some chefs point to the challenges of sourcing restaurant-quality chicken — the kind they'd serve in their more standard sit-down restaurants — at the quantity they need for fast-casual. Samuelsson recalls that after he started seriously planning Streetbird, he knew he needed a vendor who could deliver the specific type of birds he was looking for. "I started to talk to LaFrieda [Meat Purveyors] a lot and they can be the middle guys in terms of telling us, 'Okay, these guys would be a good deliverer if you want,'" he says. "It's very technical." Federal Donuts recently started buying from Coleman Natural, happy to find consistent quality from a vendor who can supply its entire operation. Daniel Delaney says he's about to start the process of finding the right vendor and seeing what makes sense.

Another strategy to achieve consistency across outlets is to have a commissary kitchen that oversees as much of the process as possible. At Federal Donuts' Northern Liberties location, chef Matt Fein oversees the chicken prep for all stores. "We've found that having the commissary has really smoothed a lot of the production and really made consistency better," says co-owner Tom Henneman. Added bonus: That commissary in Philadelphia could handle production for stores from New York City to Washington, DC. In Charleston, Stehling and Uecke were already working from a commissary space at Hominy Grill, which was too small to accommodate the amount of fried chicken prep they needed to do there. Using it as a commissary for Chick's Fry House was a no-brainer, Uecke says. "A lot of what we're doing right now at Hominy is a system making large batches and getting the same people to produce a lot of the same things over and over again. By doing that, we've already scaled up and prepared."

The decision of whether to work from a commissary or do all prep in-house at each location is just one of the major operating decisions each new player in the fast-casual game will have to make. While a chef's culinary principles might be the same for their higher-end and their fast-casual restaurants, the operations cannot be. For some chefs, it's a transition that might not come naturally. Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger is partnering with Saison chef Joshua Skenes on a fast-casual noodle concept, and explained the challenges he sees in transitioning to fast-casual from fine dining this way: "The tricky thing is that just because you're a name chef, [it] doesn't translate into being a fast-casual person."

Would-be chicken empire builders also need to deal with the fact that chicken is, well, chicken. "Chicken can definitely be tough to cook," notes Fein. "Beef can be anywhere from medium-rare to well-done at a fast-food place and most people will accept it for what it is. But chicken, if it's undercooked you're going to get somebody sick. If it's overcooked, it's virtually inedible."

A final thing to consider: The giants of the fast-food fried chicken world make for some pretty terrifying competition. While the provenance of fast-food chicken might leave something to be desired (or at least clarified), the fact is, the big chains know how to prepare it consistently to the public's liking. When asked why the fast-casual fried chicken space has been slow to fill, Shake Shack culinary director Mark Rosati answered: "the KFCs of the world and Popeyes — one of my favorites — they [already] do it pretty well." Then there's Chick-fil-A, who basically have the fast-food fried chicken sandwich market cornered. Still, as Andrew Zimmern recently put it, timing is everything: "The audience is there. They want bespoke chicken. They don't want the Colonel. They don't want Popeyes. They want the bespoke experience. I think that's really, really important."

Looking Ahead

Even despite the challenges, it looks like the future will see plenty of growth in fast fried chicken space. CNBC cites data from the NPD group which suggests that chicken is "a faster-growing segment than burgers in fast food." According to the report, "chicken entrees grew three percent to $5.4 billion for the year ending in March at fast-food restaurants, at a quicker clip than burger servings, which ticked one percent higher to $7.9 billion."

The fast-casual space seems to be growing leaps and bounds day-by-day, and looking ahead, there's no reason to believe it will slow. If anything, fast-casual solves several problems looming on the horizon for restaurateurs. Charles Bililies, the French Laundry alum who owns Souvla, a Greek-inspired restaurant in San Francisco he classifies as "fine-casual" or "smart-casual," explains that with minimum wage increases, it's essential he run a lean operation. "The fine-causal model allows a restaurant like Souvla to run with considerably fewer staff than a full-service restaurant might. We don't need waiters. We don't need bussers or coffee servers. We don't need a host. We don't need a lot of those ancillary — although very important — positions that a full-service restaurant has."

The growth in fast-casual space is probably a good thing for other fast-casual operators and would-be operators. When asked if he thought there was a limit on how many fast-casual outlets the market could bear, Rosati's answer was illuminating. "I don't think so, because it's a very unique space," he says. "It is rather new. When it comes to Shake Shack, we find that we're getting bigger and bigger, and growing faster and faster." There seems to a sense among operators that, to put in terms of an idiom, a rising fast-casual chicken tide lifts all boats. Hill Country Chicken's Glosserman saw a similar influx in barbecue in New York City after the opening of Hill Country Barbecue. "We learned this in barbecue, there's just lots of room out there, and as more chefs get into this, fried chicken becomes more of a category that people think about, which is a good thing."

Fast-casual fried chicken is happening. Perhaps it will soon be happening at a restaurant near you. Here now, a look at the operators taking the plunge:

Meet the Players

The Fast-Food Titans

Photos: Chick-fil-A, Jay Reed/Flickr; KFC/Facebook; Popeyes, raspberrii/Flickr

Chick-fil-A
Locations: ~1,900 in the USA

This is the fried chicken sandwich that chefs love, whether or not they're willing to admit it on the record. Prices for a sandwich hover between $3 and $5 dollars depending on location, and despite its COO's history of publicly espousing anti-gay ideology, its fans are loyal: Openings attract lines of people waiting overnight for the chance at a year of free meals, even in subzero temperatures. The restaurant recently ranked as the #1 American chain in terms of customer satisfaction and the company is on an expansion tear.

TL;DR: Fried chicken sandwiches, homophobic track record, super beloved

KFC
Locations: ~4,000 in the USA

A longtime leader in the fast chicken space since its founding in 1930, KFC is best known for its hand-breaded bone-in chicken (with 11 herbs and spices) and for founder/mascot Colonel Sanders. Today the chain is owned by Yum! Brands, and has faced certain challenges like the American public's growing resistance to bone-in chicken and antibiotics, Chick-fil-A's nonstop growth, and how to deal with kid's meals. Still, KFC has major market share (it calls itself "the world's most popular chicken restaurant chain") and, for many diners, sentimental value.
TL;DR: Basically invented fast-food fried chicken, lots of stores, Colonel Sanders

Popeyes
Locations:
~1,600 in the USA
Popeyes is another chain beloved by chefs; Anthony Bourdain has
never hid his love for Popeyes fried chicken. (See also: Hugh Acheson, David Chang, Paul Qui.) Like KFC, Popeyes is more known for its fried chicken pieces (bone-in "Bonafide" or served boneless as tenders) than for its sandwiches. Popeyes has grown a lot in the past few years; a recent investor report cited more than 200 openings in 2014, and stated that Popeyes "commanded 23.2 percent of the domestic chicken quick-service restaurant (CQSR) segment at the end of 2014."

TL;DR: Cool chefs like it, impressive growth, #Bonafide

First-Wave Fast-Casual

Photos: Federal Donuts, Nick Solares/Eater; Hill Country Chicken, Jason Lam/Flickr; Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken/Facebook

Hill Country ChickenLocations: Two, both in New York City

Hill Country Chicken began in 2010 as a spinoff to Hill Country Barbecue's popular original location in New York City. "We set out initially to create a fried chicken eatery that was in the fast-casual space, that wasn't fast food, wouldn't be perceived like a KFC or a Popeyes, but was going to be doing fried chicken in a better, improved way," says Glosserman. Part of the inspiration came from Glosserman realizing he didn't have an answer when friends asked where he liked to eat fried chicken in New York.

The menu offers several chicken preparations. The bone-in fried chicken can come "Classic" (skin-on with "sweet heat") or "Mama Els" style (no-skin, cracker crust); there are large chicken tenders, chicken sandwiches, and salads topped with fried chicken. Glosserman has an eye towards growth (for now he's still focusing on NYC) and menu expansion: Hill Country Chicken recently started serving grilled chicken, its first non-fried chicken offering.

TL;DR: Fast-casual chicken pioneer, several different chicken preparations

Federal Donuts
Locations:
Five, all in Philadelphia
Federal Donuts has quickly shot to icon status since opening in 2011,
putting Philadelphia on the fried chicken map and launching a wave of doughnuts-and-chicken imitators. Acclaimed chef Michael Solomonov and his crack team have set an impressive precedent in the fast fried chicken space; the toppings and glazes are creative, the chicken is shatteringingly crispy, and the turnaround is pretty darn fast (the aim is within 10 minutes per order). While the other first wavers have pretty expansive menus, Federal Donuts has kept its focus narrow. "We only serve three things and they have to be perfect," Solomonov recently told Eater, referring to the coffee, fried chicken, and doughnuts that comprise the Federal Donuts menu. "It has to be right every single time, and we make thousands a day."

Federal has been serving a fried chicken sandwich at a temporary summer location, offering it in its brick-and-mortar shops only for special occasions. And it's entirely possible that it could land on the official menu. "We think people would love it," says co-owner/co-founder Tom Henneman. "We maybe have something that's a little bit more appealing to a broader market. Not everybody comes in and wants to have four pieces of chicken." Federal Donuts has been teasing expansion beyond Philly for years, and the time couldn't be more right for it to set up shops all over the country.

TL;DR: Pilgrimage-worthy fried chicken and donuts, chef pedigree, possible expansion

Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken
Locations:
One in NYC, one in Las Vegas
After serving an extremely popular fried chicken at their various New York City Blue Ribbon restaurants for years, empire builders Eric and Bruce Bromberg opened Blue Ribbon Fried Chicken in 2013 to impressive lines. Unlike other first wavers, Blue Ribbon had taken a recipe out of its full-service restaurants and changed it into a fast-casual operation. In
a first impression piece filed the day of opening, Eater NY critic Robert Sietsema found the chicken thighs and drumsticks "hot and juicy, with a relatively thick crust on an intact skin."

The New York City menu is expansive: There's fried chicken, fried chicken sandwiches, tenders, barbecue pulled chicken sandwiches, grilled chicken sandwiches, a long list of sides, and more chefly combos like the "Beak to Butt" with crispy necks, backs, hearts, and gizzards. The Vegas location has a more streamlined menu (no gizzards to be found), and Eater Vegas reports that guest will "eventually [be able to buy] pre-packaged flour and seasoning mixes."

TL;DR: Popular restaurant fried chicken goes fast-casual, already in Vegas

Chicken Explosion

Photos: Shake Shack, Dixler/Eater; Delaney Chicken, danieldelaney/Instagram; Fuku, Solares/Eater

FukuLocations: One in New York City
After moving his two Michelin-starred tasting counter Momofuku Ko, David Chang repurposed the space into Fuku, a fried chicken sandwich joint that
opened in June. The tightly focused menu features a spicy fried chicken sandwich (with or without daikon slaw), french fries, and a chicken-free salad. This is not the same fried chicken that's served at other Momofuku restaurants: Chang has cited both Chick-fil-A and In-N-Out as inspirations. He's also been inspired by Taco Bell's app, and a mobile Fuku app is in the works. There have been impressive lines for the sandwiches since day one.

When he first teased the concept at SXSW, Chang hinted that Fuku is a beta test for a "bigger concept" that could eventually see him bringing great food to the suburbs. Eater critic Ryan Sutton can see it happening, as he wrote in a first impression filed the day Fuku opened: "You might not see a Momofuku Noodle Bar or a Momofuku Ko open up in Des Moines, Iowa, anytime in the next decade, but I like to think we'll see Fukus cropping up across our fruited plane very soon, serving excellent chicken sandwiches to Americans who'll giggle when they intentionally mispronounce the name."

TL;DR: David Chang fried chicken sandwiches, lines, could end up in the 'burbs

Shake Shack
Locations: 42 in the USA
In July, Danny Meyer and his masters of fast-casual dipped their toes into the boiling hot waters of fried chicken and added the ChickenShack sandwich to their menus — but only for a limited time only and only at the Brooklyn locations. Shake Shack culinary director
Mark Rosati tells Eater that the sandwich is the result of some two years of research and development, and it seems highly likely that Brooklyn is merely the test site for a larger rollout. No way would Shake Shack spend two years working on a limited-time-only special with its own special trademark.

For now, the Shake Shack crew insists there are no plans to spin-off a separate concept (as in a multi-unit Chicken Shack chain), with the VP of marketing and communications telling Eater NY that "we are Shake Shack through and through, there are no plans [to open a separate chicken chain]." Even without a separate chicken chain, the specter of ChickenShack should loom large in the minds of fellow Exploders, First Wavers, and even the Titans. Shake Shack already has multiple locations and brand loyalty, plus it melds fine culinary standards with efficient and gracious service. Who better than Shake Shack to be the Shake Shack of fried chicken?

TL;DR: Shake Shack introduced limited-edition chicken sandwiches, next step the world

Chick's Fry House
Locations: One in Charleston
Chick's Fry House opened in Charleston this June to much excitement. Because of its location, the restaurant has a drive-thru takeout window, but don't be fooled: The duo behind the operation are Hominy Grill owners Robert Stehling and Dave Uecke. While this is definitely a fried chicken joint with whole pieces, a sandwich, and a salad on offer, the menu has some other star fried items, including fried pork chops and fried catfish (both in baskets or as sandwiches) and doughnuts.

The fried chicken is based on the duo's beloved Hominy Grill recipe. Stehling explains that at Chick's Fry House, the mission is to take "a very small slice of what Hominy does, doing it well, and doing it over and over again." Chick's Fry House has also embraced technology with its upcoming MenuDrive app, which will allow customers to order ahead for both dining in and taking out. As previously noted, the guys are open to expanding Chick's Fry House to multiple locations.

TL;DR: Famous restaurant chicken goes casual, expansion-minded, also pork chops

Delaney ChickenLocations: One to open in New York City
A fried chicken shop might not be what you'd expect from New York City barbecue savant Daniel Delaney, but bear with him. "I think it's the best thing we've made," he says of his fried chicken. "The recipe development has been so tedious... I think that what we're better at is [an approach similar to a] toiling metalsmith that sits and slowly chisels away at one thing for a long time." For Delaney, perfecting a fried chicken recipe was like perfecting his brisket recipe, all about details and repetition. And that recipe,
he says, is different from others on the market for being batter-dipped instead of dredged in seasoned flour. Plus, he says, it will be "super heavily spiced." He plans on serving whole pieces and sandwiches.

When asked about whether he has plans for multiple Delaney Chicken outlets, Delaney says: "It's possible. I don't want to put the cart before the horse." Rather, he sees his first location at New York City's upcoming UrbanSpace Vanderbilt market as "a way to incubate and to see: Do people like our food? Do people like the chicken?"

TL;DR: Serious barbecue pedigree, whole pieces and sandwiches, food hall digs

The Crack Shack
Locations: One to open in San DiegoTop Chef lifer and San Diego chef Richard Blais hops into the fast-casual fray with the Crack Shack. The concept here is all-day chicken and eggs, "from fried to grilled and everything in-between," reports Eater San Diego. The restaurant will prioritize sourcing, buying chicken from local farms and using non-GMO eggs.

For the project, Blais is teaming up with his crew from Juniper & Ivy, including owner Michael Rosen, and the Crack Shack will share a plot with J&I. This being San Diego, diners can expect plenty of outdoor, open-air seating. There's not too many details out yet on the project, but back when the concept was still under wraps, Rosen told Eater San Diego that "if it works, we'd love to do more."

TL;DR: Top Chef's Richard Blais, chicken and eggs, built to scale

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