Look out Colonel a new chicken shop is planning to cross the pond. Nick gets a preview bite of Chik-Fil-A.
Ã¢â‚¬ËœWe take our bun coverage very seriously,’ says Rich Matherne Vice-President of Field Operations Northeast Region. Well, who doesn’t? Personally it used to be an obsession of mine in my teens but perhaps I am misunderstanding? It seems so.
What he’s talking about is the pickles (gherkins to us) on a Chick-Fil-A (chicken fillet, geddit) bun. These don’t have to be the same individual size slices but they do have to cover the base the necessary amount to deliver the classic Chick-Fil-A taste experience that people crave.
And they do crave it. Chick-Fil-A have taken over a disused shop in Swiss Cottage for just a few hours at lunch to serve the fast food that has made them one of the biggest names in America with 2,000 restaurants in 43 states and Washington, D.C. The pop up is heaving and many people here are American, some have come all the way from their studies in Cambridge to get the taste they can’t get in the UK. At least not yet.
The chicken sandwich was invented in Atlanta in 1946 by the company founder Truett Cathy. Invented is a perhaps bit of a strong word, it is after all just breaded, deep-fried chicken breast in a bun, but before that cooking chicken took too long for the average American fast-food eater, certainly longer than a burger.
Cathy found a pressure-fryer that could cook the chicken sandwich in the same amount of time it took to cook a fast-food hamburger and he was off. But not on Sundays, the founder’s religious beliefs mean the chain was and is always closed on Sundays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. His son has recently said that his Dad also needed a regular day-off at the end of every hard week and felt his staff did too.
The Chick-Fil-A eaters are pretty evangelical and so is the staff. Rich has been with the company eighteen years, as his name badge proudly states, and he loves the product and the business. Each outlet is a franchise and Chick-Fil-A put in the main part of the money required and, as Rich says, the franchisee just has to put in the hard work. If they can do that, then large profits can be made. No franchisee can own more than one outlet, that way he says they concentrate on standards and getting things right every day.
Ã¢â‚¬ËœI like the basic original best,’ Rich says.’Bun, chicken and just the pickles,’ and through a mouthful I taste his point. The vinegary crunch of the gherkin goes well with the meat, the breadcrumb and the bun. There are of course far more variations available in American outlets, including grilled chicken versions for those avoiding fats, but Rich says it’s surprising how many people don’t want to change from the basic.
And there are the waffle fries, which look unsurprisingly like waffles. I like these as they are thicker and fluffier than the usual fast-food chips with just a hint of crunch. To wash them down Chik-Fil-A offer unlimited drinks’May I refresh that?’ asks a passing waitress indicating my large and now empty cola cup. Rich explains that’refresh’ is part of the approved lexicon that all wait staff use when not keeping every table clean and tidy. All part of consistency across every outlet, something the American consumer is very keen on.
Plans to come to UK and Europe might be in hand but Rich says they aren’t just going to blunder in; solid research and an understanding of the different markets come first. After all, there is already a famous US chicken outlet in the UK that can’t be taken lightly.’Indeed,’says Rich,’but you know we keep our coating mixture top secret too.’