As a young adult, The Roost Carolina Kitchen's Joe Scruggs toggled between working in his father's auto shop and at fine dining establishments in Chapel Hill, NC. It was only after some time working in sales for a food company here in Chicago that he hit on the idea of starting a food truck and serving chicken biscuits like the ones he grew up on in his hometown of Pittsboro, NC.
With help from his father, the pair got a truck up and running and, before long, Scroggs expanded to The Roost's current Lakeview storefront with the intention to have a home base to grow the food truck business rather than start a thriving restaurant. Scroggs, who turns 31 next week, has abandoned ideas of truck expansion in favor of a new brick-and-mortar spot to grow The Roost's reach.
Below, Scroggs discusses the early days before receiving a heaping amount of positive press, how he and his staff have handled the ensuing customer response, how important quality control is and some of the more trying moments the past year has held. He also addresses the restaurant's popular Nashville Hot chicken. "Most people get the spicy because they're intimidated by the heat. The Nashville's hot, but if you like hot things (then) you're not going to have any problem with it."
How has the first year gone?
It's gone incredibly well. Beyond our wildest expectations. We never expected the storefront to be a big revenue driver for us. When we came into this place it was just going to be a space for us to manage our food truck and we were going to put one or two more on the road. Pretty early on we realized that was not how things were going to manifest. We started getting busier and busier and then we got some great press and then we got busier and busier after that. To the point where we totally abandoned the idea of doing more trucks. We're doing everything we can to keep up here and we're talking about expanding. We're going to try and add a second location south, maybe West Town or Wicker Park, this year. I've seen a ton of places. We've got the money lined up and we're going to do it.
How nervous or excited are you at the idea of expanding?
I'm not really nervous. I wasn't nervous when we opened this place up because it was the right thing to do. Right now, on a weekend here, the wait is just too long, we need to open up our options. I feel like there's a big part of the city that we don't really access. We're not trying to go into a place and have five thousand square feet with one hundred fifty seats. We're not going to change our menu. We're going to do the same thing and keep doing it good.
What kind of space size are you looking for?
We have thirty seats here, we're not going to have more than fifty. Once you get bigger than that you need to have booze, you need to have waitresses, you need to have a whole different kind of operation that doesn't suit our style. We're just a chicken joint. It's hard to be a chicken joint with one hundred seats. I don't want to have a place you walk into and it looks cookie cutter. When we came in here, most of this was already here. We painted and re-arranged and made the kitchen to suit our purposes. We're going to make the (new) space work for us.
What are the things you've learned in the past year?
I've learned a ton. I've been doing this food for years now. Food was never an issue. It was a matter of ramping up the volume. Even now we can stumble when it's slammed. Which we're really trying to work on. At the same time, we're doing a pretty good job for cooking everything 100% made to order. The biggest thing I've had to learn is how to scale up to a point where we can accommodate how busy we are. Which has happened a little faster than we ever anticipated. It would be a lot easier if we did batch cooking. We get suggestions sometimes from customers who had to wait a little while to get their food like ‘why don't you just anticipate your rush and do a bunch ahead of time?' Never. I'm sorry, you can either wait or you can go to Popeye's. We're gonna do it made to order. Forever. It comes out hot every single time. You're never going to have a cold piece of chicken here. That's just not the right way to do it.
Tell me about how The Roost got started.
I came home (to Pittsboro, NC) one Thanksgiving and said (to his family) I want to do a food truck (in Chicago). There's not a place in Chicago where you can get a chicken biscuit. It just wasn't here. It was before the ‘hipster' fried chicken movement. I thought that if I dropped a food truck that did nothing but chicken biscuits, I'd crush. I had some great family recipes that were just standard...like our standard biscuit recipe. We were able to buy a truck cheap, build it out in (his dad's) shop, 100% between the two of us and put it on the road for a quarter of what it would have cost if we had went out and bought a finished food truck or had someone do the work. We've since retired and sold off the original truck. A couple of weeks ago, actually.
For the first sixteen months, it was just me. I would get to the kitchen at six, I would make all of the food, put it on the truck, sell it, come back and prep for the next day. After about fourteen months, I hired my first person so we could start doing breakfast. We would get to our original kitchen which was just rented space at a bar in Lincoln Park. We did that for another eight months until we started looking for our own space. I was paying more rent without a storefront than I do here. We could have not opened the doors here and still been doing better than at the other place. The parking situation in the back is ideal. There's a fenced in lot. Opening here took no time at all. Took about a month from the day we signed to open the doors. We started relatively slow and now we're doing a pretty healthy clip.
Can you talk about how things were at the beginning?
We had four people on the staff when we opened and one of those people was on the truck. That was when I was doing like one hundred and ten hours a week for the first couple of months. I'd get here early and help with the truck and then I'd stay until close. So when we started getting busy we put a fourth person on Saturdays and said we'd never need more than four. Now we have six. And that's still hectic. You can't really put more people back there. We're good on six. There's nothing we shouldn't be able to handle. The first few weeks we'd do thirty-five, forty tickets a day. And if we broke sixty I would be like, ‘yeah, good day guys, awesome.' Now if we don't do double that in a day, I'm concerned. It was probably for the best (to be slow at first) to identify issues before we got crushed. If the business walked in that we get now, if that had happened on the first day we'd be in a different situation right now.
Have you made any changes to the food or service since opening?
For the biscuits, we used to do these giant batches at once. Our oven situation is such that we can only do forty at a time. We would have sheets of biscuits just sitting there ready. We found that the last tray never came out as good as the first one. So now we do everything even more to order. We don't start another tray of biscuits until we need another tray. Even those are coming out fresher because we're not prepping them ahead of time. We started doing that a couple of months in. I think that they're consistently better than when we started. We've tweaked our service quite a bit. Now we have two registers that has helped us a lot in our busy times.
Of the many positive reviews Roost has received, was there any one review that got people in the door more than another?
I can't tell you how grateful I am for all of those articles. The next day it's very obvious based on the uptick in business. It's phenomenal. All of those articles between April and August that started some momentum in the press carried on through the year. The Chicago magazine article really affected business. We started getting people from further afield coming in. Those people that came in once now came in two to three times a week and they brought in friends who brought in friends. Hungry Hound did their thing and that brought people from downtown because it's in cabs. That was good, but the one that I really feel changed the game for us was Chicago's Best. For whatever reason, after that one, it gave us a really serious and obvious bump. People still mention that to me. Just the bulk of it...we had over twenty write-ups or TV things or whatever in the first year. Which is beyond our wildest dreams. For this location I don't think we'd be doing even remotely as well. We'd probably still be talking about food trucks if we hadn't gotten it. I can't be more grateful to the media for helping us out.
Were there any moments where you weren't sure if you would get through it?
We certainly had our hiccups in the kitchen. One Saturday, a couple of months agoat 10:00 a.m. our oven turned off and didn't turn back on. That's biscuits, peach cobbler, bread pudding...the range worked so we could do mac ‘n cheese. So for that entire shift I was laying on my back trying to change the thermal coupling on the oven during Saturday lunch. Then I had to drive down to the south side to get a new part that didn't fix it. And then I went and bought a brand new oven and installed it that night. That was a testing day. I have a really great crew. Most of the people that are here have been with me since day one. There's not a lot that could come in that could throw a wrench in our system. A million different things that we could never anticipate. We intentionally kept our menu small so we don't over extend our people. We're going to do these six things and we're going to do them great. And if it's not great, we're not going to serve it. We've thrown away trays of biscuits because they don't look quite right coming out of the oven. The people that are working here learn how to do these things. It's not a situation where you mix bag #1 with bag #2, mix, throw it in the over and it's ready. They learn how to make everything we do from scratch. The people that are in our kitchen now are going to go to our next space and teach the next crew of people how to do it just the same way. We're going to try to be one of those rare places that have several locations but all of them are good. That's a tough thing to do.