The Food Pyramid in the South is bigger than those of other regions, mainly because “Fried Chicken” is considered its own food group.
Here in the Golden Triangle, you don’t have to venture far to find it. From gas stations and grocery stores to franchise chicken restaurants, fried chicken is but a stone’s throw away no matter where you are.
But of the hundreds of places where it can be found in town, nobody does fried chicken like the Food Giant grocery store on Alabama Street in east Columbus.
Since the store opened 10 years ago, the store’s deli has been frying chicken at a pace that almost defies imagination.
How much chicken?
Bobbie Reese, the store’s deli manager, paused to calculate the numbers in her head.
“Well, we sell about 3,800 pieces a day; more on weekends,” she said. “It’s hard to say. I do know we order 275 cases of chicken each week and by the time Monday rolls around, we’ll have two, maybe three cases left before the next order comes in.”
Doing the math: each case of fresh, cut-up chicken weighs 45 pounds. That’s 12,375 pounds of chicken — more than six tons of chicken. Every week.
Ty Dankins, the store manager, started out in the deli when the store opened, helping fry chicken.
“Back then, we’d have maybe 700 customers a week,” he said. “I’d say it’s double that now, maybe even more.”
It has been largely a word-of-mouth phenomenon and Food Giant fried chicken draws customers from far beyond Columbus.
“Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Macon, West Point,” Reese said. “There is a church in Birmingham that comes in once a month to pick up an 800-piece order. They say they can’t find chicken that tastes like ours anywhere else.”
Why has Food Giant chicken developed a cult following?
“It’s the batter,” Reese said. “That’s all I’m going to say. It’s a secret.”
Keeping it crispy
There is more to it than that, said Bobby Hill, the store’s head fry cook and the man in charge of all fried chicken operations at the store, everything from supervising five fry cooks, ordering, maintaining equipment and, most importantly, quality control.
There are a lot of factors, he said.
“One thing is that we use a soybean cooking oil,” Hill said. “It doesn’t absorb into the chicken the way other oils do, so our chicken stays crispy and isn’t greasy. People like that.”
Other important factors are consistency — the same number of chicken pieces go into the fryers in each “drop,” which maintains proper cooking temperature. Hill said the chicken is stirred every 5 to 6 minutes to prevent pieces from sticking together. The fryers are drained and cleaned twice a day. And, of course, the chicken is fresh. Hill orders chicken three times and week and the chicken flies out the door soon after arrival.
Natasha Bridges is one of those dedicated customers.
“I’ve been buying chicken here ever since they opened up,” she said. “I’ll come in three or four times a week, maybe more than that.”
While the deli offers other items — vegetable plates, fish plates, chicken livers — Bridges sticks exclusively with the chicken.
“I usually order 16 pieces, sometimes 25 if there’s family over,” she said. “I like the seasoning. And the price is good, too.”
The fry cooks arrive at 7 a.m. each day, and the fryers are in continuous use until 6:30 p.m.
The store has four commercial quality fryers. Each fryer can accommodate 112 pieces per drop and it takes 20 minutes to cook the chicken. That’s 400 pieces per hour for almost 12 hours per day.
By 8 a.m., the first of the chicken is piled high in the deli’s display case for the lunchtime crunch, which begins arriving around 10:30.
“There’s little bit of a lull until around 4,” Hill said. “Then people start coming in to pick up supper.”
Tons of chicken
Hill has been at Food Giant more than five years.
“I’ve been frying chicken since Day 1,” he said. “When I came in for the job interview, they told me, ‘We sell a lot of chicken. Don’t let the chicken whoop you.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to whoop that chicken.’ That first day, I couldn’t believe it. I came here from Flint, Michigan. People like fried chicken there, and I guess people everywhere like fried chicken. But it’s not like what it is here. It’s amazing.”
In addition to the walk-up business, the store sells tons — literally, tons — of chicken through call-in orders, especially the bigger orders.
Hill keeps track of the call-in orders and limits the orders to 400 pieces per hour to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of chicken for walk-in customers.
“If you’re going to make a big order like 800 pieces, you better do it about a week ahead of time because the order book fills up pretty quick,” Hill said.
Big orders don’t faze them, he said.
“If somebody walks in and orders 100 pieces, we tell them, ‘Sure, we can do that, but you might have to wait 10 or 15 minutes,'” Hill said. “I bet if you walk into one of those fried chicken order places and tried to order 100 pieces, they’d tell you you’re crazy.”
Dankins said the store can keep the price-point low (100 pieces sell for $67.79) because the chicken drives traffic throughout the store.
“They come in for the chicken, but they’ll be in every aisle before they leave,” he said. “It’s good for our whole business.”
While Food Giant is a grocery store that sells chicken, on Sundays it seems more like a chicken store that sells groceries.
“Sunday is our biggest day,” Reese said. “We’ll have people lined up all the way to the back of the store. People don’t mind waiting.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Each week, Food Giant orders:
■ Chicken: 12,375 pounds of fresh cut-up chicken
■ Batter: 1,000 pounds
■ Cooking oil: 1,260 gallons
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]