If Black Chicagoans have a favorite local chicken spot, it’s likely Harold’s Chicken Shack, which has been serving the city since 1950. Harold’s famous chicken, with its sweet-and-spicy sauce, is a pleasant reminder of home, of family gatherings, of a Black experience meant for them. In an ever-changing city with a history that runs deep in multiple directions, Harold’s Chicken has been a constant in Black communities.
The art of ordering and eating Harold’s Chicken can only be passed from one person to another, whoever they choose to share this delicacy with. You must know your order before stepping up to the cashier.
“If you’re not from here, you’ve got to be taught how to do it. You’ve got to,” says local Harold’s Chicken expert Larry Legend, a comedian who wrote about his favorite Harold’s locations for Chicago magazine in 2019.
The cashier doesn’t have time for you to think about your order. Customers have to be quick and to the point, clear and specific. Don’t forget the mild sauce. Most popular chicken joints in Chicago have a mild sauce, but each one’s recipe is mostly unknown. Mild sauce is both sweet and tangy, and some say it is a combination of barbecue sauce, hot sauce, and ketchup. Each mild sauce found in the city is different, meant to go with its own chicken, according to Legend, a complement to whatever herbs and spices were used to batter the chicken. You can get it on the side, but most Chicagoans order it on the chicken.
“Even if they fried the chicken to perfection, you’re always gonna ask them to fry it hard, and you have to have the sauce on the chicken. So if I see somebody not having the sauce on the chicken, I’m questioning them because you’re taking away the experience of the restaurant. Everything about it has to do with the sauce on the chicken. The chicken itself isn’t the draw. But the sauce with the chicken combination is made in heaven,” said Legend.
Harold Pierce started his business with just $800 and a single fryer. Today, Pierce and his juicy, crispy fried chicken served with its signature mild sauce are Chicago institutions — pillars of the local Black community, as essential as churches and corner stores. Pierce died in 1988, but sold the business to family and friends who carried on the legacy, including his second wife Willa, who died in 2003, and later his son J.R. and daughter Kristen, who would eventually become CEO. Representatives from Harold’s did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this story.
Like many Black Chicagoans of his era, Pierce moved to Chicago in search of a better life and opportunities than were available in the Jim Crow South. During the Great Migration he moved from Alabama to Chicago’s Black Belt.
Pierce first made a living as a chauffeur, and eventually ran a restaurant called H & H with his first wife, Hilda. He saved enough money to start his own business at 33: a chicken shack.
Pierce’s story is of unique importance for Black Chicagoans, says Arionne Nettles, a veteran Chicago journalist who is tracking the impact and history Black Chicagoans have had on pop culture while researching her upcoming book, We Are Culture. She’s also a lecturer on the subject at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“The family story of Black entrepreneurship and creating something new in this place that is full of opportunity is such a Black Chicago story,” Nettles says. “Everything about Harold’s is Black and everything about Harold’s is really Chicago. It’s like the best of both worlds for someone who has that specific identity.”
Pierce’s first location opened at 1235 E. 47th Street. At the height of its expansion in 2006, Harold’s Chicken Shack blossomed into 60-plus franchises, with locations as far from Chicago as Atlanta; the company’s website lists nearly 40 operating today.
For Jason Goff, the host of NBC Sports Chicago’s pre- and postgame Bulls coverage, Harold’s reminds him of visits to his grandmother’s house. Although his grandmother no longer lives in the home he visited as a child, he can vividly recall the sights and sounds of having the famous fried chicken with his family.
“Every time I went to my grandmother’s house, I would walk down to Harold’s on 87th and Dan Ryan,” says Goff. “It was my first real foray into American comfort food ... Everybody’s got their soul food recipes, right? ... We didn’t eat soul food like traditional American descendants of slavery, like greens and some of the other [foods] that I became more aware of as I grew older. But what I did have was my little chunk of not just the Black experience, but the Chicago Black experience: taking my ass over to Harold’s on 87th and learning how to order. ... There was an art to it, and I felt connected in a way through food that I hadn’t felt before.”
To South Siders, Harold’s chicken and its accompanying mild sauce are sacred, and when rapper Wale seemed to be dissing the beloved fried chicken in his 2011 single “That Way,” which features Rick Ross and Chicago R&B singer Jeremih, Chicagoans let him hear it by booing him at a show at Alhambra Palace.
“I think that’s why we love [Harold’s] so much,” Legend says. “It was something just in our neighborhoods. You know, Chicago is a city that likes to champion what we invent or what we brought to the culture and I feel like that’s something that’s really big. It relates to people’s lives. And it brings back those memories of going to the club, or even going to house parties or juke parties, or a long day after school. You can remember Harold’s just by thinking about the smell of the sauce.”
When outsiders think of Chicago foods, they think of deep-dish pizza, Italian beef, and Chicago-style hot dogs. But for Black South Siders, Harold’s is on that level, and maybe even higher.
“Everybody wants to come here and talk about deep-dish pizza and Italian beef. Okay, we eat that every now and again. But we eat square-cut pizza and we eat Harold’s chicken, sometimes multiple times a week,” says Jay Westbrook, the local brewer known on social media as the Black Beer Baron.
Westbrook paid homage to Pierce and other Black Chicago greats when creating his popular Haymarket collaboration beer with Sam Ross, Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale. “I might even make the argument that Harold Pierce is just as relevant to the interests of Chicago as [first Black mayor] Harold Washington and [White Sox Hall of Famer] Harold Baines. And in the annals of fast food, he’s just as relevant as Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas.”
Westbrook isn’t alone in that sentiment. In a 1985 letter to the editor published by the Chicago Defender, a reader recalled a Dick Gregory-led Freedom Walk in 1969 that ended at the Harold’s Chicken Shack on 64th and Cottage Grove, and wrote that Pierce is “Chicago’s Third Harold, who ought to rank right up there with Harold Baines and Harold Washington wherever Chicagoans get together to chant, ‘Harold! Harold!’”
In a 1985 interview with the Defender Pierce said, “Yes, we’re in the bad neighborhoods, but they say the poor people will be with you always… So I’ll stay with the poor people.” And stay with him they did.
A signature of some of the original Harold’s Chicken Shack locations is a photo of its late founder. In the image, Pierce is smiling down on the business he created all those years ago, which has morphed into a culture, into a community. Harold’s represents the Black Chicago experience — needing to move, needing to reinvent, to scrap and save and, ultimately, create. Harold’s is not just emblematic of Black Chicagoans, but a piece of them. That’s why you get that feeling and that memory in each of their stories. Because it’s a part of their lives.