Harold's Chicken Shack to celebrate 75 years in Chicago

ByJohn Owens Localish logo
Friday, April 12, 2024
Harold's Chicken Shack to celebrate 75 years in Chicago
Harold's Chicken Shack, a Chicago cuisine staple for eight decades, is known for its delectable fried chicken, often smothered in a trademark mild sauce.

CHICAGO -- Harold's Chicken Shack, a Chicago cuisine staple for eight decades, is known for its delectable fried chicken, often smothered in a trademark mild sauce.

Chicago's most famous fried chicken establishment was the brainchild of Harold Pierce, an old-school entrepreneur from Midway, Alabama. Pierce moved to Chicago in the 1940s.

Like many Black Americans who came to Chicago from the South during the Great Migration, Pierce and his wife settled on the South Side, where they opened a restaurant on Oakwood Boulevard called "H & H," which specialized in fried chicken feet with dumplings.

While H&H was moderately successful, Pierce was obsessed with the idea of using the recipe for his chicken feet for fried chicken.

Using that recipe, Pierce opened the very first Harold's Chicken Shack at the intersection of 47th Street and Greenwood Avenue in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood in 1950.

That eatery was an immediate success, and other Harold's Chicken Shacks would open, primarily on the Chicago's South Side and West Side, over the next few decades.

"My father was a young Black man from the South with a dream," his daughter Kristen Pierce said recently during an interview from the Harold's South Loop location. "He worked hard during a time when African Americans weren't capable of obtaining any businesses or funding. And his hard work paid off."

Now, Harold's is just a few months away from celebrating its 75th anniversary, and is more successful than ever. The chain now has 41 locations nationwide, including in Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix and St. Louis.

"It's the best chicken around," Kristen Pierce said. "That's why we're so successful. The others can't compete 'cause they can't compare."

There are 20 Chicken Shacks in the city, suburbs and northwest Indiana.

"Whenever we go out of town and we say were from Chicago, they say, 'Do you know about Harold's chicken?'" Pierce said. "It's a part of Chicago."

SEE ALSO: Harold's Chicken Shack celebrates 70 years as one of Chicago's oldest Black-owned restaurants

Amazingly, the business is still run by the same family. Kristen Pierce is the CEO of the restaurant chain. And her husband, Vincent Sherrod, assists in training and development for the various franchises.

Pierce has vivid memories of working at her uncle's Harold's Chicken Shack on Stony Island Avenue.

"We learned the business at a young age," Pierce said. "We're not corporate-owned. We are completely a family-run business."

What makes Harold's chicken special is its unique texture and flavor. The product is marinated overnight, and then dredged in a specially seasoned flour for 15 minutes.

"Fresh, everything's fresh here," Sherrod said.

Harold's has become a part of pop culture in Chicago, name-checked by rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Chance. But it's also become a key part of Chicago's reputation for distinctive dining.

"We've never done commercials," Pierce said. "That goes back to my dad. He wanted everything to be word of mouth. And when you hear all those rappers mentioning Harold's, that's all word of mouth, too."

What is also unique about Harold's is the oddly numbered restaurants. Although there are only 41 restaurants nationwide, some locations have higher numbers. For instance, the Harold's in the South Loop is No. 62. And the Harold's at 2134 S. Michigan Ave. is No. 71. That's because there have been a number of Harold's locations that have closed over the years, and the ones that remain open never have their numbers reassigned.

Harold Pierce died of prostate cancer in 1988. But Kristen Pierce has maintained the business ever since, operating from the chain's south suburban headquarters in Hazel Crest. Throughout the country, the various Harold's locations may have different looks, but they all have the same standards.

"We don't have franchises. We have license agreements," Pierce said. "We form a partnership with the people who operate all of our restaurants. They get to use the Harold's name and everything associated with Harold's."

Pierce and Sherrod visit most of the franchises to educate the various owners on preparing their food. This attentiveness to each location goes back to Harold Pierce, who would visit all the franchises in Chicago, collecting franchise fees from each location, and providing training on how to prepare his food.

"We're still visiting all the franchises," Sherrod said. "We're looking at things like customer service, that they have the right bags for the food. It's all about consistency. Harold's is a business in a box. The seasonings are in a box. Everything's in a box," Pierce said. "And we teach all the franchises how prep the food, the proper cooking times, all that. Preparation is important me, like with the wings. I wanted to see the chicken with the wings out over the fries, so the food would be attractive. I want you to sit down, look at the food and say 'This food's too good to eat."

Then, there's that mild sauce, unique to Harold's, which combines ketchup, barbecue sauce and hot sauce.

"When I was a kid, you know, the mild sauce was only ketchup and hot sauce," Kristen Pierce said. "Then, we had an idea to mix hot sauce and some things together, and we created the mild sauce."

The various Harold's restaurants also give their patrons the option to request how they want their chicken cooked. Pierce said the most notable style is the "Chicago-style."

"Six wings, fried hard, salt and pepper, mild sauce," Pierce said. "That's the Chicago-style".

Harold's will begin celebrating its milestone 75th anniversary this September. Plans for those celebrations haven't been solidified yet.

"We're definitely planning on a gala for the 75th anniversary, hosting a couple of events and just celebrating. And we're hoping the business will last for our grandkids and great-grandkids," Pierce said.

One thing is for certain -- Pierce will pay a special tribute to her dad during the anniversary.

"Whenever I pass by Harold's, you know, I had contemplating a few times of selling," Pierce said. "And what changed my mind was I rather say 'There is my Dad.' Then, 'there goes my Dad.' That's keeping a part of my dad alive."