Chicken coup: Carl Clarke and David Wolanski on CHIK'N

By Joe Lutrario contact

- Last updated on GMT

CHIK'N founders Carl Clarke and David Wolanski

Related tags: Chicken

The founders of hipster fried-chicken restaurant Chick’n’Sours are hoping to redefine the chicken shop with their new ‘guilt-free’ fast-casual concept CHIK’N

Carl Clarke and David Wolanski’s first CHIK’N site is positioned a hot wing’s throw from KFC and only a few doors down from Nando’s on London’s Baker Street. The pair have put their new cock right on the block, pitching the fledgling chicken shop brand against the globe’s two biggest poultry players.

The duo behind chicken restaurant Chick ’n’ Sours believe the UK can have its chicken and eat it. Taking flight later this month, CHIK’N is billed as a guilt-free chicken shop experience. It will be ethically minded, serving free-range birds and paying staff in excess of the London living wage, while still being affordable with a chicken sandwich costing less than a fiver.

The plan is ambitious, a CHIK’N on every high street in the land. The pair don’t want to talk site numbers when we meet at their Covent Garden Chick ’n’ Sours restaurant, but they have been quoted elsewhere saying they think they could reach triple figures.

“This has the potential to be huge. There’s nobody out there doing chicken shops properly except for maybe a handful of independents. The exciting thing about CHIK’N is the pleasure it’s going to give people,” says Clarke, a chef-turned-international-DJ turned chef-restaurateur that many credit with popularising the idea of the pop-up restaurant (his most notable projects include Disco Bistro and Rock Lobsta).

Wolanski has a background in front of house, having cut his teeth at famed Soho restaurant L’Escargot when it was run by Marco Pierre White and latterly running high-end catering business The Recipe. The pair met “in a field” at Latitude Festival and hit it off immediately, connecting over a shared love of good music (apparently there are never any arguments over Chick ’n’ Sours’ hip and loud playlist).

The extraordinary success of Nando’s has seen a number of competitor chicken concepts hatched in recent years – including Bird, Clockjack Oven, Whyte & Brown and Soho House’s Chicken Shop – but with the exception of the latter all have, as yet, failed to get off the ground in a significant way. With just two restaurants under their belt, Clarke and Wolanski’s heady roll-out ambitions would appear fanciful were it not for the financial clout behind them. 

CHIK’N has already attracted investment from Active Partners, which is involved in a number of other restaurant companies, including Honest Burgers, Soho House and, most notably given the new concept’s market positioning, healthy fast-food brand Leon. While the level of investment is currently unclear, it is unusual for a private equity house to back a concept before it has proven itself across a number of locations and more unusual still for one to do so before the tills have even started ringing.

Behind the chicken shop counter

Clarke, it turns out, is an expert on the global output of a certain bow tie-wearing colonel: “The best [KFCs] are in Thailand and the worst are in India,” he says, authoritatively. 

Wolanski, by stark contrast and quite surprisingly, doesn’t eat in chicken shops. “I’ve only eaten at KFC once, and that’s because Carl made me go with him,” he says. “We didn’t pick well. We went to the Leicester Square one during the lunchtime rush. It’s what I would call a guilty pleasure. Carl sometime gets a KFC on the way home from Chick ’n’ Sours.”

“KFC and Nando’s are well-run businesses,” interjects Clarke. “They have amazing systems. It is an exceptional achievement to be able to sell that much consistent chicken when it is served and cooked by people aged under 20 getting paid very little money. But much of the rest of the chicken industry is running on a broken culture. The core product is usually flown in from Brazil or Thailand. The people that own them don’t care about the food. To them it’s just a thing that makes them money.”

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Talon-ted team: The CHIK'N burger 

Fried chicken is about as cheap as the eating-out industry gets. An inner city basic chicken shop will sell a burger for as little as £1 and a meal with fries and a drink for £3. “I can’t get my head round the economics of it,” says Wolanski. “For these places to be able to make money, selling it at that price, it must be so bad. We’re not really thinking about them as competition to CHIK’N, but we do know that a lot of people are doing fried chicken very badly.”

The wider fried-chicken industry has an unfortunate association with bad practice, not least poor hygiene, bottom-end ingredients and excessively unhealthy menus. Such is its reputation, it proved difficult for the first Chick ’n’ Sours to find a site. The mere mention of the genre was enough to send a landlord or local community running for the hills, says Clarke. “We had to do a lot of work to change that perception.” 

But change it they have. With its eclectic food – the menu reads as if a delivery van en-route to a Chinese grocery collided with a chicken shop – great cocktails, raucous atmosphere and surprisingly accessible pricing, Chick ’N’ Sours has established a loyal following and won rave reviews from a number of national critics including The Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin. 

“Chick ’N’ Sours’ reputation has made the launch of CHIK’N easier,” admits Wolanski. “There are two luxury flats above us at the new Baker Street site. The fact that our landlord (British Land) wants to put us underneath them says a lot about our brand. We want to be the chicken shop that people actually want on their high street.”

While some of the DNA from Chick ’n’ Sours has been carried over to CHIK’N, the pair have had to tone things down to make their new concept more mainstream and accessible. 

“Chick ’n’ Sours is about explosive flavours. This is not that,” says Clarke, who oversees the food side of the business alongside development chef Ash Mair. “The food will be much simpler. We’ve got a straight-up sandwich, and we also do a spicy one and a barbecue one. But with that said, everything we do at CHIK’N will be based on our learnings from Chick ‘n’ Sours.”

Much like the food, the decor and general ambience at CHIK’N will reference Chick ’n’ Sours’ cool aesthetic and feel, but it certainly won’t be a facsimile. “It will be contemporary. It won’t be as eclectic. It will be more branded in feel,” says Wolanski, showing off CHIK’N’s branded packaging on his MacBook Pro. It’s colourful and cool without being over the top.

A new pecking order

The pair’s choice of Baker Street for their first CHIK’N site tallies with their ambition to be mainstream. Marylebone’s main thoroughfare is a far cry from hipster-filled Haggerston – where Chick ’n’ Sours first took flight in 2015 – or Covent Garden’s village-y Seven Dials area.

“Baker Street is not us,” says Wolanski. “CHIK’N is not hipster chicken like Chick ’n’ Sours. We’ve purposely gone for a mixed, mainstream demographic.” 

Do they see the trendy people (almost exclusively late-20s to early 30s) eating at the Covent Garden site as potential customers for CHIK’N? “We’d expect them to be our customers, yes. But we’d also expect every single person that walks past the place to be a potential customer,” says Wolanski. “It’s chicken for everyone. It’s for the man on the street. The price point will see to that.”

Unlike the fast-food-influenced operational model of its competitors, everything at CHIK’N will be made to order. “We will be a chute-less operation,” says Clarke. “Unlike most other chicken shops, the kitchen will be fully open. You will be able to see the whole process from the counter. We’ll be able to get breakfast out in three minutes and a sandwich in five. 

“This hasn’t happened overnight. It’s been a year in the making,” adds Wolanski, who has worked for a few well-known fast-casual brands and had a good look at their systems. “It’s a totally different dynamic to Chick ’n’ Sours. It’s not chef driven and there’s no front of house in the traditional sense.”

As such, they won’t be employing trained chefs or experienced front-of-house personnel. But they will – comparatively speaking – be paying their new young and largely unexperienced workforce well.

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Beak'ing bad: A CHIK'N soda

The company will pay about £9.50 an hour potentially rising north of £10 with bonuses. All the staff will also be paid for three eight-hour days a year to do charity and community projects. “We want to change the culture that’s in quicker service restaurants at the moment,” says Wolanski. “For it to work, we are going to need them to work harder, because if we’re going to pay them more we need to do less with more people. We want people to come for a job and stay for a career.” 

Clarke admits that it is strange to go from looking for experienced chefs and waiters to seeking out people with barely any experience, but says he is happy with the opening team he has for Baker Street. “Ash has done an amazing job of simplifying all our processes and writing the training manuals.”

The question whether the birds will be broken down on-site is met with a laugh. “You’ve got to get your head around the fact that it’s not a chef-driven environment,” says Clarke. “It would be suicide to get in whole chickens. We buy whole chickens from the farm and they get processed by our butcher to the exact specification we need. They are then brined on the premises in salted buttermilk before being breaded and floured.”

Just like at Chick ’n’ Sours, the menu is constructed in such a way that the whole bird is used. The breasts go in the sandwiches, the inner fillets are used for the tenders, the drumsticks and the thighs get boned out and used for fried chicken and the wings are the wings. 

Sides from the all-day menu include crinkle-cut fries and a few simple salads while the breakfast menu includes a grilled CHIK’N sausage, free-range egg and cheese muffin, and hot cakes served with either blueberries and strained yoghurt or chicken tenders, bacon and maple syrup. 

Fowl play

Clarke doesn’t believe free-range chicken is prohibitively expensive to the point that it can’t be offered at a reasonable price point, as many of his competitors claim. 

“It is possible because we’re doing it – 100g of white meat in a sandwich for less than a fiver,” he says. The pair will source their chicken from Castlemead Farm in Somerset and are already in discussions about investing in the business to ensure a regular supply as the concept scales.

CHIK’N has further strengthened its links with its key supplier with a plan to convert its waste oil to biogas and use it to power some of the farm’s equipment. The pair has yet to sign on any further locations. “We need to smash this one first,” says Clarke. “We do have one in the pipeline but we haven’t committed just yet. We want to go outside of London soon, we won’t hang around.”

They previously stated that two more CHIK’Ns could open in London this year with more expansion in Greater London and cities including Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds possibly on the cards for next year. Delivery is likely to be a core part of the brand but a decision has yet to be made on with whom to partner. “It’s up to 30% of the turnover at some fast-casual restaurants so it’s not something we can ignore. We’ll hopefully have separate entrances when the site allows,” says Wolanski. 

CHIK’N has a property model based on small, medium and large sites. In a former camera shop, the 25-cover Baker Street site is classed as a small site but – given the location – is expected to enjoy the turnover of a medium site. This flexible approach to bricks and mortar is sensible, allowing the brand to roost in all but the largest sites. 

“The next few years in the property world will be interesting,” continues Wolanski. “We think a lot of places are sadly going to close; a mixture of retail units and some independent food places that can’t take the continuing rents and rates increases. This will cause premiums to go down and for landlords to be less greedy with rents than they currently are.”

While the first CHIK’N will trade from an ex-retail unit, it is not an A1 concept. The pair has had to apply for change of use to A3 to be allowed to fry on-site and all locations will also be licensed to serve alcohol, with the duo currently in negotiations with a craft beer brewer to create house beer on tap. 

The expansion of CHIK’N won’t be at the expense of Chick ’n’ Sours, either. Clarke and Wolanski are currently in negotiations to open a third site at an as-yet undisclosed location. 

While it’s not hard to find examples of initially plucky chicken restaurants that have failed to hatch, CHIK’N has tight branding, a low price point and a strong ethical angle. All this, coupled with its founders’ willingness to embrace operating in a more mainstream space, means it could well fly.

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