In the words of LaToya Williams, owner of The Grub House restaurant in Indianapolis, “Chicken gets the job done.”
And she’s not the only restaurateur who thinks so.
Chicken is pretty much everywhere — and it has a growing presence in the Indianapolis area, where no fewer than a dozen chicken-centric restaurants have either just opened or are about to open.
According to Tastewise, an AI-driven platform that researches restaurant menus, chicken is served in nearly 90% of US restaurants, outperforming beef (70%), fish (62%) and pork (45%).
So it’s no surprise that 31 vendors – including The Grub House – will be attending Saturday’s Chicken & Beer Fest at Monument Circle. The event is presented by online food news platform EatHere in partnership with Daredevil Brewing Co.
“People are comfortable with chicken,” Williams said. “It can be prepared a million different ways. I think it’s something that brings people together.”
Mike Gillis of food blog Where’s Mike G? said chicken is one food we all have in common.
“Chicken is one of those universal things in all cultures,” Gillis said.
Indianapolis restaurant menus include chicken curry, chicken waffles, teriyaki chicken skewers, chicken biscuits, barbecue chicken pizza, Thai chicken bao buns, jerk chicken fries, and chicken tamales .
But fried tenders, wings, and hot Nashville flavors dominate a wave of chicken restaurants opening locally in recent months or on the way. Among them:
◗Dave’s Hot Chicken, 530 Massachusetts Ave., Suite 150, with a proposed Broad Ripple location;
◗Flamin’ Chicken & Shakes, 5510 W. 38th St.;
◗World Famous Hotboys, 1004 Virginia Ave.;
◗Naptown Hot Chicken, Indianapolis City Market and a second location opening August 15 at Circle Center Mall;
◗Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, opening in Avon and Noblesville in December;
◗Slim Chickens will open in Traders Point in February, followed by locations in Westfield, Greenwood, Franklin and West Lafayette.
Naptown Hot Chicken, specializing in Nashville hot spice barbecue sauce, will be at the Chicken & Beer Fest. Joella’s Hot Chicken, a Kentucky-based company that introduced its Nashville hot flavors to central Indiana in 2017, will also be participating.
The festival debuted at Pan Am Plaza last year as EatHere’s first large-scale public event.
“We knew we were going to try to grow this thing or at least give people something to look forward to every year,” said Bradley Houser, who co-founded EatHere with Austin Burris.
The hot stuff
Hot Nashville style is defined as chicken marinated in a watery spice mix, then floured, fried and dressed with a flavorful paste, and served with pickles on white bread.
Jim Bitticks, president of Dave’s Hot Chicken, said his company’s menu is limited to one cut of meat.
“We focus on the best part of the chicken, the chicken breast, and that’s either as an a la carte tender or on Martin’s potato buns as a sandwich,” Bitticks said.
Dave’s Hot Chicken was founded in 2017 by Arman Oganesyan, David Kopushyan and Tommy Rubenyan as a pop-up stand in a Los Angeles parking lot.
Kopushyan, the “Dave” in the company’s name, developed seven different spice levels, topped by the Reaper level and the inclusion of Carolina Reaper pepper – dubbed the hottest chilli by Guinness World Records.
“Our Reaper requires you to sign a waiver before you can order it,” Bitticks said.
Gillis, an Indianapolis-based food journalist, said his travels to Nashville, Tennessee, convinced him that two of that city’s most famous hot chicken restaurants were the best. Established in the 1930s, Prince’s Hot Chicken and 10-year-old Hattie B’s Hot Chicken share a rivalry similar to Chicago’s deep-dish pizza restaurants Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s.
“People like one or the other,” Gillis said.
While Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s have opened locations in Indianapolis, there are no Prince’s or Hattie B’s locations north of Nashville.
Still, Gillis said Indianapolis is becoming a crowded market for Nashville-based hot flavors based on cayenne pepper, dry mustard powder and sugar.
“This is something new and different,” he said. “In the next six months to a year we will see what the newcomers end up doing. Running a restaurant and making real money is difficult because there’s a lot of competition – but especially when you’re in the exact same field.”
It would be prudent for all Nashville hot chicken restaurants to engage with consumers in Indianapolis first, Gillis said.
“It’s great to have options,” he said. “But for the common consumer who has tried them all, if you want to do that, you will pick your favorite and eat there.”
When Dave’s Hot Chicken opens at Noodles & Co.’s former Broad Ripple location, the restaurant will be less than a block from a Joella’s Hot Chicken location.
Bitticks said his company is ready to compete for customers.
“If the food is really good, the rest will take care of itself,” he said. “For Dave’s, it’s our recipe for success. The quality of the food is great and it tastes great.”
Grub House owner Williams, who sells Philadelphia-themed chicken sandwiches with green peppers, onions, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, provolone cheese and house sauce, said she’s not necessarily a fan of the influx of chicken-themed restaurants.
“I have a feeling we’ve got chicken,” she said. “So we’re getting more of what Indianapolis already has. Indianapolis is missing so much more. But we get more chicken.”
However, there is evidence that Indianapolis residents can’t get enough.
On Thursday, Chick-fil-A opened a restaurant at 10 E. Washington St., less than a block from a popular Chick-fil-A at Circle Center Mall. Based in Atlanta, the company has more than 30 restaurants in central Indiana.
KFC, founded by Indiana-based Harland Sanders, has been serving chicken to central Indian customers for decades. Miami-based Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen has more than a dozen Indianapolis-area locations, and Atlanta-based Church’s Chicken operates nine restaurants in Indianapolis. Zaxby’s, a Georgia-based company specializing in chicken fingers, also has five local restaurants.
Others are coming, including Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, a Louisiana-based company founded in 1996 that was ranked #33 in this year’s Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
The chain has about 640 restaurants in more than 30 states. It added 52 locations in 2020, 69 in 2021, and about 100 are expected to open this year — out of at least 40 that have opened so far.
The restaurant is now recruiting managers to oversee restaurants in Noblesville and Avon, which will open later this year.
Bitticks, general manager of Dave’s Hot Chicken, describes Raising Cane’s as a “20-year overnight success”.
Chicken fingers made from tender are popular with youngsters who aren’t particularly adventurous when it comes to trying new foods.
“I have four children and two of my sons are nothing but affectionate guys,” Bitticks said. “Tenders taste good, and they’re pretty simple and easy to serve.”
on the circle
Houser, co-founder of Chicken & Beer Fest, said the ease of preparation is why Ale Emporium serves tender meat instead of wings at the festival.
The restaurant’s famous Hermanaki sauce, developed by Herman Perryman of the Ale Emporium, is used on the offerings.
Other high-profile vendors include a Milktooth/Beholder combo stand and pizza specialist King Dough.
Admission to the festival from 3pm to 7pm is $35 or $45 for VIP tickets. General admission tickets include four chicken samples and five beer samples. VIP tickets include early entry at 2pm, six chicken samples and five beer samples.
A hot wing eating contest will take place on one stage, with DJs Space Bunz and Annie D providing the festival’s soundtrack.
Houser said this weekend’s Gen Con event at the Indiana Convention Center could help boost participation at the Chicken & Beer Fest.
“I’m not saying we depend or depend on Gen Con traffic, but if you walk around downtown, you’re likely to hit the circle,” Houser said. “You might smell some food and say, ‘What is that?’ And we will become curious.”•