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The First Family of Fried Chicken

How Harold's Chicken Shack grew from a mom-and-pop stand to a chain 62 strong and still expanding.

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Harold's Chicken Shack, the ubiquitous south-side and south-suburban fast-food chain identified by a maniacal monarch chasing a chicken with a hatchet, is a confederacy of individual outlets. And many of them offer their own interpretations of the way Harold Pierce, the Fried Chicken King who died nearly two decades ago, meant his birds to be prepared.

Back in 1950, five years before Ray Kroc opened his first McDonald's and two years before the Colonel began franchising his secret recipe, Pierce was sitting in the barbershop at 69th and South Park with some buddies, playing checkers and talking chicken. He and his wife, Hilda, ran a restaurant on 39th called the H & H, and they specialized in chicken feet with dumplings, a recipe he thought could be adapted for fried chicken. Gene Rosen, who owned a poultry shop down the street, offered him a few birds to fry up for the guys, and they liked the results so much that Pierce opened a take-out joint at 47th and Greenwood, with Rosen supplying the chickens. That was the original Harold's Chicken Shack.

Pierce, who grew up in Midway, Alabama, never dreamed the joint would spawn an empire that reached as far as Atlanta, much less the north side--No. 36 is supposed to open in Wicker Park later this month. The next few stores were trademark agreements with family and friends. He put $50 in their registers, told them to get their chickens from Rosen, and expected them to pay him a 42-cent royalty per bird.

His daughter Kristen, now CEO of Harold's Chicken Shack Inc., says he kept his accounts in his head and knew exactly who owed what when. "He would call you and tell you to come in and bring his money," she says. "He had a one-on-one relationship with everybody, and everybody respected him."

And most knew not to try to get anything over on him. His son J.R. Pierce, who now handles training and development for the chain, remembers his father once caught his cousin "bootlegging"--buying chickens from a different supplier and not reporting the sales. "My dad actually knocked two of his teeth out," he says. But afterward "they just went back to being cousins and working."

Pierce did well, but he didn't trust banks. "At one time he had an apartment in the Shoreland Hotel, and there was a cedar closet where he kept all his money," says J.R. "Whenever he would go to pick up money at the stores he would put it in chicken bags--just like he was walking out with chicken. He was close to his 60s before he ever got a credit card."

Early on people began calling Pierce the Fried Chicken King, so he designed the logo of the hatchet-wielding sovereign, who later on became a chef. He also designed the chain's distinctive faux-redbrick walls and white painted archways. On the wall of every shack hung a framed photograph of His Majesty, smiling benignly, his chin supported by a hand bearing a gold pinkie ring, the wrist wrapped in a diamond-studded Bulova.

Once a new shack was up and running Pierce was hands-off, and many franchises began deviating from the standards he'd set. He'd developed a 14- to 15-minute cooking process, and since chickens were fried to order, everyone expected to wait. But over time some operators began taking shortcuts, using different hot sauces or barbecue sauces, or tinkering with the seasoning. That's why one particular shack could be inferior to another even though they were only a few blocks apart.

By 1975 Pierce had 20 shacks around the city. In a Reader profile that year he attributed his success to having "sand in my craw," meaning the grit barnyard fowl eat to help them digest their food. He didn't want to expand to other cities, and he didn't think he could risk opening in white neighborhoods. "They'd kick my ass out," he said. In the early 80s he retired to a piece of land he'd bought downstate near Beaverville. He'd always loved to fish and hunt, so he built a lake on the property and named it Harold's Bear Lake for the grizzly he'd bagged on a trip to Alaska. "He'd spend thousands of dollars on hunting dogs--$2,000 for a beagle was nothing for him," says J.R. "That was what he loved to do." He charged people a few bucks to fish and hunt on his land and eventually built a house with a bar upstairs and fryers in the basement so they could cook their catch.

Harold Pierce died of prostate cancer in March 1988, when he was 71. By then, says J.R., there were around 30 or 40 shacks in Chicago. Harold's second wife, Willa, took over the business and expanded it out of the city. When she died three years ago Kristen and J.R. kept it growing. Today the siblings rule the kingdom from a small office suite in Hazel Crest. A giant gilt-framed photograph of their father hangs over a leather sofa in the waiting room.

Over the years J.R. ran a couple different shacks, which helps explain the chain's disordered numbering system. No. 11, his first shack, closed in the mid-90s, but its number was never reassigned; No. 56, his second shack, now operates under a different owner but its original number. As other stores opened and closed over the decades, some were renumbered and some weren't. The original No. 1, Harold's first shack, is long gone; the current No. 1, at 7139 S. State, used to be No. 6--though it appears to have closed last week. No. 92 is in Milwaukee, No. 94 is in Minneapolis, but there's no longer a No. 93. For that matter there's no longer a 16, 42, 43, 44, 45, or 78, though there could be again someday.

The chain now has 62 outlets, including franchises in Detroit and Atlanta. More will open later this year in Wrigleyville, Indianapolis, and Saint Louis.

Many of the older stores look decidedly less than regal: they're dark and dingy, the neon flickers, the staff take money from behind bulletproof glass. The two siblings are trying to modernize the shacks and eliminate the inconsistencies from one to the next. They're also pushing changes in the basic product. Contending that customers no longer have the patience to wait 15 minutes, J.R. has developed an eight-minute frying process, in which the chicken is fried for five minutes, left hanging in the basket until an order comes in, and then dropped back into the grease.

Unlike their father, J.R. and Kristen are hands-on--J.R. has even started doing surprise evaluations. But like Harold, they're sticklers about money, issuing a written complaint for the first violation and a $250 fine for the second. J.R. says that after a third he'll call his lawyer, though he hasn't had to go that far yet. They've also upped their cut of the chain's sales--Harold's Chicken Shack Inc. now gets 6 percent of everything the franchisees sell, not just the chickens.

Harold never cared about that kind of consistency. He just wanted his money. "He never was one to just run around," says J.R. "Basically everybody ran their stores, and they just paid him the royalties. He never expected it to get where it got. He just cruised. He'd just have fun."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Sula, Joe Wigdahl.

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