Photo: Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune
I learned when I moved to Chicago from the South that Harold's Chicken Shack would serve as a perfect homesickness remedy; it was one of the first restaurants I was taken to, and it served as a hub for fattening Chicago Maroon sustenance. As its EIC wrote for the benefit of new transplants in our orientation issue: "A Chicago cliché as much as El trains and neverending twilight. Kimbark Plaza outpost brings fried chicken, some fish, and sody pop to the table. Regular use will take several delicious years off your life, but good for the occasional change of pace, and conveniently located next door to lots and lots of alcohol."
(No offense to the purveyors of fine poultry there, but I came to prefer the chicken at nearby Rajun Cajun, one of Chicago's dining miracles: a half-soul food, half-Indian food establishment. And none of this fusion business, neither, just one counter of soul food and one of Indian: you can get your butter chicken with a side of greens, mac and cheese, and a corn muffin, or your fried chicken with sag paneer and raita. It's been awhile so I'm not sure if they still rent Bollywood movies.)
The other thing I learned is that no two Harold's are created equal. The HPK location, as noted, has some fish; #41, "Harold's Bar and Grill" on Clybourn, has liver, giblets, and gizzards, like many locations; #62 has catfish nuggets; the Wicker Park location has polish and gyros; and so forth.
Maybe not for long.
In Chicago Grid, Meg Graham reports that Kristen Pierce, the CEO and daughter of Harold, has big plans: more locations beyond Chicago (including in airports), social media accounts, and most critically for Chicagoans, consistency.
In recent years, Pierce, 43, has stopped issuing licenses for new locations. She’s opened three company-owned restaurants in Bronzeville, Beverly and Momence, with plans to open between six and 10 more in the next year, including one in the Loop. Tanya Winfield, Harold’s COO, estimates each location will cost between $75,000 and $150,000.
The differences between the company-owned Harold’s and many of the licensed locations are stark. The company-owned restaurant in Beverly sits in a new brick development, steps from a Jamba Juice, on a bustling commercial thoroughfare. The walls are bright, the tables sleek black. A whiteboard advertises the store’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. Employees punch orders in on iPads.
The varying menus and quality at Harold's date back to her father's very loose franchising agreements. That's how he worked; in a brief history by the Reader's Mike Sula, Harold Pierce's son recalls that his dad kept his money in a cedar closet in his apartment at the Shoreland (which was a student dorm when I arrived in the city). And it was the inspiration for one of my favorite pieces that ran while I worked at the Reader, Sula's accompanying attempt to discover the best Harold's in Chicago, while creating something of a rough guide to the many franchises:
I developed a list of 14 criteria to be judged on a scale of 1 to 10. These included grease, a controversial category given that a low score due to too much grease might result in a higher score in the next category, the fries-bread-grease ratio.
The new restaurants would likely lose some critical points: "In decor the shacks that scored highest remained true to Harold Pierce's original restaurant design. Points were awarded for neon and a prominent display of the original logo, original artwork, and a framed portrait of Harold Pierce." Which, if you haven't seen it: "a framed photo of His Majesty, smiling benignly, his chin supported by a hand bearing a gold pinkie ring, the wrist wrapped in a diamond-studded Bulova."
As Sula points out, the standardization of Harold's has predated Pierces's announced new plans. Fortunately, its existing restaurants seem to be holding on to their texture. For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the world, but lose his neon signs and catfish nuggets? Either way, I recommend taking on Sula as a quality-variation consultant. And maybe add some sag paneer.