News that Super Size Me director and star Morgan Spurlock was opening a fast food restaurant of his own raised some eyebrows. What is a guy who set out to expose the adverse effects of America’s greasy fast food culture by bingeing on Big Macs for 30 days straight doing opening the very same kind of establishment he railed against? Was this some kind of joke?
Neither joke nor hoax, Holy Chicken opened its doors Saturday at 11 a.m. in Columbus, Ohio, for a four-day test pop-up promising "a mission-driven, farm-to-table, all-natural, transparelocalicious chicken experience.” The decidedly on-trend chicken sandwich concept is a far cry from McDonald’s and its giant corporate brethren, or so Spurlock will tell you — and his mission is two-fold: to expose other restaurants’ bullshit marketing tactics, and to create a new fast-food model that might just be an industry game-changer.
Why Columbus, Ohio? As Spurlock explains, it’s “one of the test market capitals of the United States”; Wendy’s was launched there, for instance, and it’s also right down the road from Chipotle’s new burger place, Tasty Made.
While news of Holy Chicken’s existence seemed sudden, Spurlock tells Eater the concept has been “in the works for months and months and months, and we’ve been talking about it for years.” Word spread quickly, and on opening day the restaurant opened to a long line of people curious to see what Holy Chicken had in store.
What they found inside were some unexpected revelations, such as this signage on the water dispenser: “By 'locally-sourced,' we mean our water is piped here fresh from the City of Columbus Department of Public Utilities. We can say it's artisanal because our lawyer doesn't think anyone will sue us for it, and because this is probably the one thing in the restaurant that is actually good for you.”
A glossy photo of a pristine-looking chicken sandwich is accompanied by text explaining the food styling tricks behind it (such as the fact that the slaw is held perfectly in place with K-Y Jelly), and messages painted on the walls mock the marketing tactics widely used by chains: “The color green makes you feel healthy and relaxed, as if you’re surrounded by nature. By painting these walls this lively shade of green, we’re helping you believe our food is fresh and natural.”
“We have a different philosophy, we are 100 percent honest with our customers,” Spurlock says. “A lot of other companies when they talk about whatever healthy things they’re offering, they never really tell you the whole story and where the food comes from. I think they market it in a way that’s misleading. I think we have the ability to change the way fast food functions and change the way people look at it as a result.”
Spurlock says he’s taken a cue from one of his favorite places, In-N-Out, to keep the menu super-simple: “Hand-breaded” crispy chicken sandwiches comes topped with slaw, pickles, and mustard or “spicy sauce”; chicken tenders are also on the menu, and sides are limited to crispy green beans or more of that slaw.
But wait — what’s Spurlock doing slinging fried food? He originally set out with the idea of opening a healthy restaurant that would serve grilled options, but the more he researched, it became clear that grilled chicken sandwiches just don’t sell; as Shake Shack and David Chang know all too well, what people really want is delicious fried chicken sandwiches.
“So then I thought, how can I give people what they want and simultaneously make them feel good about it?” he says. “Let’s be honest with them about the industry and about how everything functions, and what’s in it and how it’s prepared.”
Inside Holy Chicken, there’s also a wall of text that rails against “Big Chicken,” and discusses how both chickens and farmers are mistreated within the “vertically integrated corporate supply chain” lorded over by big-time producers Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride.
“The whole idea is we wanted to close that loop on sustainability, we wanted people to know exactly where their food is coming from,” Spurlock explains. “The chicken I’m serving you, I know it’s free-range, I know it’s all-natural, I know it’s antibiotic-free, I know it’s cage-free, I know they were humanely raised. Everything I tell you about it, I know to be 100 percent accurate because the chicken I’m serving you is the chicken I raised on my own farm.”
Yes, Holy Chicken is raising its own chickens — though don’t expect to find a coop out behind the restaurant. Spurlock has partnered with Jonathan Buttram, an Alabama farmer who advocates for independent family farms, to raise poultry for the restaurant.
“These chickens were taken well care of, they got the best feed we could have made, they stayed in clean bedding, we gave them access to sunlight, and all the fresh air could they get,” says Buttram. “I’ve been growing chickens for 38 years. I can tell when they’re sick and not healthy. These Holy Chickens are happy chickens.”
Another way Holy Chicken is setting itself apart from McDonald’s and the rest of the big fast food pack: wages. Spurlock says every employee at Holy Chicken is being paid at least $15 an hour, or nearly twice the Ohio minimum wage of $8.10.
And when Spurlock says he wants to change the fast food landscape, he means it quite literally: Holy Chicken Columbus took over the shell of what he described as a “decrepit, frowned-upon” Wendy’s, and he envisions doing that all over the country.
Of course, Holy Chicken isn’t the only new fast food concept that wants to shake up the industry: Several hundred miles west in Los Angeles, chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson are waging their own revolution by bringing healthy, inexpensive fast food to underserved communities.
And while Holy Chicken’s unusual marketing has led some to believe the whole thing is a stunt (fodder for a new documentary, perhaps?), Spurlock says overall there’s been a “tremendous response” from people who want to throw money at the concept. Following the end of the four-day pop-up in Columbus, he’s returning to New York for investor meetings; he intends to reopen the Columbus store as a permanent flagship location as well as add more locations in other cities.
Just don’t expect Spurlock to pull a Super Size Me-style stunt and eat only Holy Chicken for a month: The restaurant may pride itself on paying a living wage, partnering with independent farmers, and using “happy” chickens, but it is after all still fast food — and that chicken sandwich clocks in at around 850 calories. “I’ll be the first one to tell you no one should eat it for 30 days straight,” Spurlock says.
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