Hot Chicken: A Tale of Two Cities

During a recent trip to Nashville, I paid a visit to the source of hot chicken in the city: Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The restaurant occupies space in an unassuming strip mall on the Northern edge of East Nashville. Earlier versions of the restaurant with different names moved several times until settling here.

Prince's Menu

I paid cash for my order of half-chicken (wing, breast, thigh and drumstick) at HOT strength with some potato salad and a slice of strawberry cake from Ms. Irene who was stationed just in front of the kitchen window. Ten minutes later, the cashier called my order number. I received my plate wrapped in a brown paper bag and sat down at a table to eat. Prince’s serves the chicken straight from the fryer covered in a cayenne pepper paste on sliced white bread with pickle slices on waxed paper. Diners must exercise care when eating the chicken without rubbing their fingers around their watering eyes or other sensitive areas of the body before thoroughly washing their hands. The HOT version of the chicken is intensely peppery and addictive. I dare not order the XHOT or XXXHOT versions for fear of maiming myself. The tangy and creamy potato salad is a great side to balance the heat of the chicken. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2

In West Tennessee, we know and love Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken with deep origins in the town of Mason in Tipton County (a short drive up Highway 70 from Memphis). When the concept of Nashville Hot Chicken began entering my consciousness, I suspected that the rival city was again trying to outdo Memphis. Not true. A few google searches revealed that the African American community of Nashville is responsible for this culinary tradition enriched by a mythology all its own as told by André Prince Jeffries, current owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and niece of Thornton Prince. In the 1930s, a lady friend of Prince Jeffries’ uncle planned to punish him with super-hot fried chicken at breakfast following a long night of womanizing. The plan backfired. Thornton Prince loved the chicken and perfected the recipe which led to opening his restaurant.

Reading about Nashville Hot Chicken’s explosion in popularity revealed a deep history of food and racial politics in the city. White author Rachel L. Martin, writing for the Bitter Southerner, admitted:

Although I’m a second-generation Middle Tennessean, the daughter of a Nashville native, I had never eaten hot chicken — or even heard of it — before I moved away for graduate school in 2005. I came back eight years later to a new Nashville that eats new food.

Hot Chicken, well known to black people living in Nashville for the last century, only recently became popular among white people when former Mayor Bill Purcell organized the first Hot Chicken Festival in 2007. Betsy Phillips of the Nashville Scene recently called out George Embiricos at Food Republic for giving credit “for the popularity of the dish to the white guys who took a piece of black culinary culture and made it cool.” White restaurateur and culinary school graduate John Lasater opened Hattie B’s Hot Chicken in 2012 which he expanded to a second upscale Nashville neighborhood and a new location in Birmingham. Hattie B’s “located themselves where a lot of people could easily find them; they take credit cards; they have a kid’s menu; and they serve beer.” Hattie B’s isn’t the only restaurant to co-opt Nashville Hot Chicken. National chains like KFC and O’Charley’s developed versions for their menus.

Phillips begs us to be honest:

When you have a chicken dish that a quarter of the city has loved for almost a century and the rest of the city comes to love when they learn about it, it’s racism that kept most white people from knowing about hot chicken, because white people didn’t go into black neighborhoods. When the black people who have the decades’ long expertise in making hot chicken don’t grow rich off it, but the white kid who got to go to culinary school does, it’s not because his hot chicken tastes better. It’s that it’s still really hard for black people to go to culinary school or to get the bank loans that would let them expand their businesses into neighborhoods white people will visit.

What’s happened in Nashville makes me wonder about the expansion of black-owned Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken from its small start in Mason, Tennessee. Napoleon and Maggie Vanderbilt began perfecting their version of hot fried chicken more than 60 years ago and opened their own restaurant featuring the dish on Highway 70 in 1973. Only son Vernon “Gus” Bonner inherited the business when his parents died and renamed the restaurant after himself in 1984. Over the next 16 years, Gus’s received rave reviews from the Memphis Commercial Appeal and Saveur and GQ magazines. At some point, a white woman named Wendy McCrory began working with the Bonner family at the Mason restaurant and opened a second Gus’s location in Downtown Memphis in 2001 as a franchise owner. McCrory later bought the brand for the restaurant in 2014 and has since expanded the restaurant to 17 locations in 14 cities, and 10 states.

Terry Bonner, son of Vernon “Gus” and grandson of Napoleon told the Commercial Appeal in February of 2015 “I’m glad to see it going worldwide.” The Bonner family continues to operate the Mason location, while Wendy McCrory expands the franchise across the U.S.

I don’t know the specifics of the Bonner’s sale of Gus’s restaurant brand to Ms. McCrory, and I cannot find any online news controversy surrounding the sale and expansion of the restaurant chain.

Memphis and Nashville can both lay claim to decades-long legacies of hot chicken, but differences appear evident in the business expansion of hot chicken from the two cities. White entrepreneurs appear to be expanding versions of hot chicken from their respective cities in franchise operations in various parts of the United States. The Gus’s story in Memphis appears to be different than what’s happening with the expansion of hot chicken from Nashville. From all appearances, the Bonner family received fair compensation for the sale of the Gus’s brand and continues to own and operate the original location in Mason. The Bonner family story appears to be an example of building black wealth. Wendy McCrory went to work for the Bonners, learned how to make Gus’s spicy fried chicken from them and later bought rights to expand the franchise from them. John Lasater married into the Bishop family in nearby Franklin that owned a successful restaurant, experimented with and popularized a hot chicken recipe at the Bishop Meat and Three restaurant, and received financial support from the Bishop family to launch the Hattie B’s  chain. The Bonner family’s culinary contribution appears to live on in the Gus’s franchise. The Prince Jeffries family’s culinary contribution appears to have been usurped and co-opted by white owned businesses

The comparison raises all sorts of questions in my mind that I cannot answer. Could the Bonner family in Mason or the Prince Jeffries family in Nashville have expanded their respective hot chicken restaurants without someone like Wendy McCrory? Could these families have expanded their businesses on their own with equal opportunities and access to capital? Are the Bonners still happy about the deal they made with McCrory? Did McCrory in Memphis do a better job of fairly honoring, recognizing and compensating the Bonner family for their culinary contribution than what has happened in Nashville with the Prince Jeffries family?

Culinary justice and new success may be around the corner for Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. André Prince Jeffries announced last month that Prince’s will open a second location in Nashville. Let’s all wish them well.

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2 thoughts on “Hot Chicken: A Tale of Two Cities

  1. Prince’s has been offered opportunities to both sell the recipe and sell the business in addition to partner with other entrepreneurs. They have chosen to stay family-owned and small. I think they’re still a success story, rather than a sellout story.

    Also, there are many other hot chicken establishments in Nashville. Bolton’s, 400º, Helen’s Hot Chicken, Pepperfire, and many others. Prince’s will always be the original, but there’s no intellectual property laws protecting making chicken spicy, which is good for all of us.

    Like

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