The founders of Chick ’N’ Sours are on a mission to bring high quality, ethical and great value fried chicken to the masses with Chik’n — a new fast food concept on London’s Baker Street. A certain white-bearded colonel has grounds for being nervous.
Where did the idea for Chik’n come from?
Carl Clarke: I had the idea a few years back when I was travelling on my scooter around London. We’d opened Chick ‘n’ Sours [in Haggerston], which was going great but it’s a very niche and brash kind of restaurant, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. The flavours there are spicy and quite challenging and we wanted to bring what we were doing to a wider audience but still in keeping with what we do. There is very little choice in the fried chicken world — whether based on quality or price — and we wanted to change that.
David Wolanski: We wanted to give people the choice that they didn’t previously have. People love fried chicken but the best quality is perceived to be KFC — there is no other option.
What’s so different about this concept?
CC: The focus is on provenance, product quality and service. These elements are key in the restaurant world and we wanted to move them into the fast-casual arena. You can go to McDonald’s and get a decent meal but you don’t get the hospitality with it. [New York restaurateur] Danny Meyer talks a lot about ‘fine casual’ in his approach to restaurants and that really resonated with us.
DW: We have taken the same approach as fine dining or casual dining restaurants but are just doing it quicker, with less-skilled labour and at a lower price. That sounds like a tough challenge.
CC: Cooking chicken is not as easy as flipping burgers — it’s generally a much harder process to get right. And it’s especially hard to get the consistency right with fried chicken.
DW: The only way fast food chains have been able to get consistency in the past is by using factory-made products, which is something we don’t want to do. If you’re making burgers, all you have to do is take the mince, turn it into a patty and you’re done. But our chicken is processed by our butcher to our exact specifications and has to be boned, brined [in salted buttermilk], floured and breaded even before it’s cooked. There are a lot of processes to get right — and a lot to get wrong.
You’re pioneering provenance in fast food fried chicken as well.
CC: The ingredients we use make us stand out from the crowd. They have provenance; they are fresher, healthier and tastier than anything else out there. We use free range chickens from a farm in Somerset and have formed good relationships with the farmer.
DW: A hell of a lot of chicken is required to make this work. It’s easy to get free range chicken for one restaurant, but we’ve had to find someone who not only has the capacity to supply lots of restaurants but also has a willingness to grow as we do. We will hopefully all grow together.
How hard is it to change people’s perceptions of fast food fried chicken?
DW: People are very passionate about it — everyone’s got an opinion. It’s a lot harder to wow people with fried chicken than it is to wow them with a burger, so that’s the challenge.
CC: People still gravitate to the well-know fast food brands. How we create the message of better quality chicken and get people to stop and consider trying us over the bigger boys is tough but we’re up for the challenge.
Chik’n is about so more than just chicken though.
CC: We want to build a community and a culture of people who want to belong to our company for years to come. We’re going up against the fast food giants but there is a massive opportunity here.
DW: We pay our workforce well and all the staff will be paid for three eight-hour days a year to do charity and community projects. We want to really challenge the culture that’s in quicker service restaurants at the moment.
You’re also championing sustainability. Why is it so important to you?
CC: We want to change fried chicken for the good and that means we have to take into consideration all aspects of the process, including sustainability. Suppliers don’t deliver anything in cardboard to us, for example, and the used oil is converted to bio diesel that goes back to the farm.
DW: We have a waste machine called Winston. We feed him all the food waste and he turns it into grey compost water that goes into the sewers. It flows better than normal waste and contains nutrients that help break down sewage.
CC: It will take five years to pay it back, but we’re showing that we can innovate not imitate.
You opened up shop close to a KFC. That’s a bolshy move.
DW: We never purposefully looked for a site three doors down from a KFC, but fried chicken is all about footfall and Baker Street has a lot of tourists . At the price we sell our chicken (£4.95 for a chicken sandwich) we need to sell a lot.
What does the immediate future hold?
CC: We hope to have another Chik’n open by the end of the year as well as more Chick ’n’ Sours. We’re taking it steadily, though. Chik’n has been built for growth but we’re not getting ahead of ourselves. We need to deliver first. It’s bloody hard, even if we do everything right.
Interview by Stefan Chomka.
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