Like many projects from Element Collective, Leghorn Chicken achieved palpable buzz before it opened—or even had a location—by pushing boundaries. The group behind Nellcote and Old Town Social stepped outside of its comfort zone when the partners set out to create a progressive fast food chain based on one food item—a locally-sourced house-made fried chicken sandwich—and a socially-conscious vibe with free birth control and loud, explicit hip-hop music. The result was tons of business, extreme reactions to the social manifesto and music, and mixed reviews.
After one year, a second location open in River North and more on the way, partner Chris Dexter says his group endured a steep learning curve when opening its first fast food concept. He chatted about what they learned, how many locations are coming, and the polarized reactions they received for a concept that many customers describe as the anti-Chick-Fil-A.
You're now doing concepts with multiple locations. How has that gone?
It was an interesting learning curve. We started just about 18 months ago, we wanted to create two or three things that were a more progressive take on the QSR-type (quick service restaurant) stuff. Leghorn is a perfect example of that and it was a significant learning curve for us coming from what we've been doing. Several years ago it was a little more nightlife and then transitioning into more full-service dining, and to go to Leghorn was a lot of learning.
What did you have to learn?
In particular, we're so used to, and our skill-set as it were was in full-service. You have liquor, beer and wine, full service, and Leghorn was dealing with that quick-serve, fast-casual; you just have to churn stuff out but ultimately you're just trying to one thing well and consistently. And that was the fried chicken sandwich. Even at a Parson's (Chicken & Fish) or a Honey Butter Fried Chicken or a Roost, those are amazing concepts and the fried chicken is awesome, but those are full service and have a full-time chef. Leghorn is meant to be a fast-food chain.
That was what you were thinking from the get-go?
100 percent. Somewhere between six-to-eight locations in the Chicago area and be able to take it to pretty much any savvy, urbane, foodie city. We're not trying to do all sorts of crazy stuff.
If you were thinking of doing multiple locations in the beginning, and there was so much talk about it before you even had a location, was it so hard to find the first location because you wanted the first one to be perfect or could you have picked a different location to start?
For us, it was a function of trying to find the space and location that fit the ethos of what we wanted Leghorn to stand for. Ukrainian Village, Logan Square, Humboldt Park, they all fit into that idea. And what we ran into was we were used to taking much larger spaces and big developments and for us it was trying to find something that embodied that indie cred, with simple unique bones, that was in an area that fit what we were trying to do, but that wasn't too big.
And the clientele over there had something to do with that too?
Oh yeah. Being able to play explicit hip-hop, and getting the clientele where people are going to an Empty Bottle show, or someone's at Sportsman's Club and they'll come in before or after or we'll send servers over to Sportsman's, that's the perfect embodiment of what we want the Leghorn brand to be. Someone will be sitting outside in the summer (at Sportsman's) and we'll have one of our servers bring over 10 or 15 chicken sandwiches.
So you start with the first location with that industry vibe and you go to River North, which is in many ways the opposite. How has that ethos fit in River North?
For us, with the main DNA that we're trying to say with Leghorn, in order to go into way more mainstream-y markets, I think there were very few locations in River North that would have fit a Leghorn as well as the iconic Ohio House Motel and Diner with amazing bones and crazy history behind it. It's in a high-profile area but most of the other spaces you see around there are newer development or massive buildings but this one has so much cool indie and iconic design vibe to it that really fit. (Leghorn) works in River North or Lincoln Park or even The Loop if the actual space itself is unique and it fits that indie vibe.
Some people had a problem with the music. Has that differed by location?
I think the largest issue people had was we made a very conscious decision to play the explicit versions of the hip hop at the Western location and that was really polarizing. When we did the River North space, we still play the same music, we just don't play the explicit versions. Place to place, is the neighborhood going to be game for it?
And you still have the (Leghorn branded) condoms and birth control.
Yeah, we just had to do another order. We ordered 20,000 condoms when we started the original Leghorn and we're almost out.
How did these little features, like the music and the birth control, come together in the beginning?
We wanted to do a socially-conscious fried chicken sandwich shop and we felt strongly that if you're going to do it and really stand out you have to have some stuff that fit. Sometimes as a company you have to toe the line between mainstream with some of your projects but we felt free with this one to go with stuff we felt was fun. The social manifesto was a very conscious decision and we're excited some people have responded to it.
You guys had this idea for a while, but fried chicken has become trendy. Did you feel like you had to do something different with the food to stand out?
No, we knew we wanted to do this for several years and it was kind of ironic that (fried chicken) has become trendy in the foodie world. We had intentions of doing multiple, multiple locations in Chicago and other cities.
A lot of people think the concept is an anti-Chick-Fil-A. Have you heard from them?
No, but what we have gotten, which is hysterical, is people have made mention of that connection and put it up on social media. It got picked up on some atheism thread on Reddit, so we started getting all these threats from super-religious right-wing groups on our Facebook at one point. People started putting the most hate-filled things. One example was on Instagram, this was like three months in, someone posted it and linked to Aziz Ansari's personal Instagram with a photo of our personal manifesto and he responded and linked to it. He does a bit about how he disagrees with a certain chicken shop's political stance and he referenced it. But from our end, we don't see a connection and we certainly haven't heard from them.
Have there been any changes with the food or recipes?
Yeah, we went into it a certain way, and remember that first day, we got run over. The service was inconsistent, the product was inconsistent, and it's been a battle for us to get it as consistent as it can be. It's hard when you're dealing with real locally-sourced product and making everything from scratch. There's a reason why fast food chains can get away with it: it's pre-packaged stuff. We totally understand that people are upset when they have to pay 25 cents for a house-made sauce but we made that sauce from scratch. It's still an ongoing process but we feel everyday we get a little better.
What specifically did you have to get more consistent with?
The Nashville hot, for example, because you're using real peppers, sometimes the fluctuation within it—that's just nature, one pepper is hotter than other—sometimes we'd have a Nashville hot that was absolutely burn your face off and you almost couldn't finish the sandwich. You already have the difficulty of one person's version of hot versus another person's, but then even within what we were trying to do there was fluctuation within that. Or a cook doesn't brine the chicken breasts for the appropriate amount of time, then the salinity is off. It's little things like that when you're not in a full-service kitchen with an executive chef, a couple sous chefs, and line cooks that have been there and are tasting the food all the time.
Take me back to that first day.
It was chaos. It was flattering and humbling, the response to it, but looking back on it we were remarkably underprepared for what was going to happen. The guys were not ready for the volume we were going to do. When we opened up people were crawling up the rafters but the more people understood what it was, we settled into a really nice rhythm that's spread out. The first couple months we got run over everyday—there would be a line around the block right when we opened and there'd be a line for two or three hours.
Do you have a specific number of locations and timeframe you want to open?
No, our passion is doing singular unique concepts. There's no definitive plan of X number of locations. And it's all private, we have total control over it, and there's no pressure on us.
How many do you definitely have coming up?
There will definitely be two open in the next 8-12 months and there could potentially be three or four depending on a few other things over the next month or two.
Where are they?
I can't say. One we won't be able to announce for at least a couple of months because it's a real estate development deal and there will be a couple other cool, progressive concepts in it. The other one is a smaller deal that we can't say for a month or so.
What else do you have coming up with the concept?
One of the things that we've really been excited about has been breakfast at the café at the motel. We've had an unbelievable response. At the Western location too, we want to add breakfast and real coffee service. And at the Western location and at the café as well, starting in the next month or two, we're adding a sandwich of the week.