Nick's Pit Stop doesn't go out of its way to cater to the police. There are no wall hooks to accommodate the gray Kevlar vests--most officers either keep them on or hang them over the backs of the red vinyl dinette chairs. And finding a parking space can be tough, even for a marked car.
Yet this tiny Bucktown eatery has become a popular lunch and dinner stop for patrolmen, detectives, and technical officers. "Even the bosses come here," says Technical Officer Canto of the 13th District.
The main attraction at Nick's is chicken--charbroiled three-pound birds split down the middle and seasoned with a citrus marinade and a signature 15-spice rub. Other menu selections consist of a charbroiled chicken pita sandwich, charbroiled chicken salad, and chili made with--that's right--charbroiled chicken. That's exactly why so many police officers eat here.
"We're tired of burgers," says Canto's 13th District colleague, Technical Officer Cortez. Officer Golosinski, a beat cop with the 11th District, agrees. "This is the healthiest food I see all night," he says. They also appreciate the speed at which meals move from kitchen to table, officers say. Most are given only a half hour for meal breaks; when they head to Nick's, which lies in the 14th District, they don't have to waste precious minutes standing in line.
Backing from the blue is fine by owner Nick Kadjan. "Some restaurants may think having that many cops would be detrimental to business, but I like it," he says. "And it keeps the chicken moving." Kadjan believes Nick's first showed up on police radar when he called 911 to report drug dealing in the alley behind his building. That was five years ago, when he was the new kid on a stretch of Damen just north of Armitage considered to be the fringe of a still-risky neighborhood.
Kadjan, who grew up in Winnetka, graduated from DePaul University in 1994 with a psychology degree and little career direction. He enrolled at the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, but it didn't take him long to realize he preferred burgers to bearnaise. So he turned his attention to a fast-food concept he'd grown to appreciate while working as a paralegal for his father's Loop law firm.
"I was eating hot dogs and hamburgers every day and gaining weight," he recalls. "I noticed there were a couple of places that did chicken, and I thought that was a nice alternative." With the help of a family friend who specializes in restaurant design, Kadjan developed a Route 66-inspired decor. "I liked the idea of signs," he says. Walls and exposed ductwork were painted in cheery shades of red and yellow, and Kadjan scoured flea markets and antique fairs for vintage road signs and license plates. The final step was deciding on a name. Calling it Nick's was a given, and "pit stop" seemed to convey both fast service and the interstate spirit. (A close second, he admits, was "Nick's Chix.")
Nick's opened in October of '97. Throughout the first year, family and friends pitched in to hone the restaurant's recipes, taste-testing different spice blends and offering comments on the macaroni and cheese, the mashed potatoes, the coleslaw. Mom even stepped in as chief brownie baker, a position she continues to hold. But Kadjan says his fiancee contributed the most important ingredient--patience. "When we first opened, I probably worked 100 hours a week--I did that for about three years."
Today Nick's charbroils nearly 3,000 pounds of chicken every week. The small collection of license plates that started out behind the cash register has taken over an entire back corner thanks to customer contributions, and Kadjan has even started to cut back a bit on his hours, leaving many daily duties in the hands of the staff that has been with him since day one. There's little chance Nick's will ever compromise its culinary focus or lose its gun-toting customers. "If you're hungry for chicken," promises Kadjan, "you'll always know where to go."
Nick's Pit Stop is at 2011 N. Damen, 773-342-9736.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.