Thursday, April 17, 2014

Humble Start for Fried Chicken Fight

Who'd-a thunk it?

I'm at the forefront of culinary adventure.  An early-adopter of new food.  Right here in humble ol' Arlington, Texas.

And not just me.  But my retired parents as well.  Plus daily parking lots full of cars full of people trying out the brand-new Super Chix restaurant at the corner of Cooper Street and Park Row Drive. 

Right here in the heart of humble ol' Arlington, Texas.

According to the Dallas Observer, this is the very first Super Chix restaurant in the world, and while officially it's a test concept, its corporate publicists have made no bones about setting their sights on dethroning Chick-fil-A as America's chicken sandwich king.  In fact, everything they serve is boneless, from chicken tenders to their signature sandwiches, lightly fried to a golden tan.

They're about the fourth casual-fast restaurant to open up near our neighborhood recently.  The first was a Potbelly's gourmet sandwich place, then a Chicken Express, and then a Taco Casa.  They join a more pedestrian fried chicken restaurant, Golden Chick, plus a Taco Bell, Chipotle, Subway, Starbucks, and the locally popular Nizza Pizza, all clustered within a stone's throw of Cooper and Park Row.

Super Chix is owned by Yum! Brands, the company that also owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut.  So this is no small-fry, shot-in-the-dark, flash-in-the pan experiment in small business bravado.  There's big money behind this endeavor, and the Arlington location is its test kitchen, if you will.

The Observer presumes, and I concur, that the reason Yum! Brands chose this particular spot lies in its proximity to a big high school, which has "open campus" lunch for upperclassmen.  Plus, it's just a long block away from the 32,000-student University of Texas at Arlington.  And then there's its address.  Cooper Street is Arlington's busiest thoroughfare that isn't an Interstate - even though during rush hour, with its bumper-to-bumper traffic, it can feel like one.

Meanwhile, the strip shopping center hosting Super Chix is a more curious choice.  It's old, with a dowdy mixture of mom-and-pop storefront businesses, a plasma center, plus a large Medicare/Medicaid dental practice specializing in taxpayer-subsidized children's braces.  Behind the center are several dilapidated, low-rent apartment complexes.  A medical clinic catering to Middle-Eastern patients, a Shell gas station, an Indian restaurant frequented only by people who don't know what really good Indian food tastes like, a family-owned Mexican restaurant that is past its prime, and a long-time car inspection business round out Super Chix's eclectic collection of neighbors.

Not exactly the environment and demographics most internationally-successful corporations look for when scouting for sites.  Especially for prototype projects.

But when Dad and I tried it out for the first time, this past Monday evening, it was packed.  Cigarette-smoking Chinese students loitered outside, while inside, blacks, whites, Hispanics, and more Asians were crowded around small tables.  This place has only been open for a couple of weeks, and new restaurants almost always draw a big crowd, at least here in Arlington.  There was also a palpable atmosphere of confusion as customers figured out how to order, and where they could refill their soft drinks.  Behind the counter, a gaggle of fresh-faced teenagers of all ethnicities and skin colors were obviously learning the ropes, while two managers coaxed them along, firmly yet helpfully.

The bar usually isn't set very high when restaurants are brand-new, so nobody seemed to be getting upset, but as we waited to order, and then as we waited for our order, a lot of customers had complaints about the food they'd been given.  The young girl who took our order professed that it was her first day, but she proved to be quite efficient and accurate.  We waited over twenty minutes for our food, however!  At first, we loitered towards the back of the waiting area, but as we grew a bit more impatient, Dad and I made our way to the counter and camped out there, making sure we weren't forgotten.  The petite, quiet young lady manning the frozen custard machine offered us samples of their vanilla and coffee-and-donut flavors; the former being quite good, but the latter being distinctly unpleasant.

We got our order, it was correct, and we took it to Mom and Dad's house, where Mom was waiting for Chick-fil-A, which is what we'd set out to go and get.  But the closest Chick-fil-A is still quite a ways away, while this Super Chix is about two minutes away, and I was hoping that it would suffice.

At this point, we decided that it does not.

While the author of the Observer's review seems to have loved her food, comparing it favorably to Chick-fil-A's, the food we got was warm, and filling, but not really tasty.  The haystack onions were more hay than onion, and the fried chicken fillets of the sandwiches, while noticeably larger than Chick-fil-A's, were caked with batter, and flavorless.  Mom said the cole slaw was adequate, but not as creamy as Chick-fil-A's.  On the other hand, Super Chix's salt fries were firm to the touch, yet soft inside; delicious; and substantial in size.

Not that taste is everything, of course.

Apparently America's progressive, pro-gay-marriage hipsters like the Observer's reviewer are hopeful that Yum! Brands can concoct a successful alternative to the more traditional-family folks at Chick-fil-A.  If that's the gameplan, however, then Super Chix still has some work to do in honing their recipe, as well as their service.  Even on my visits to the busiest Chick-fil-A's, their service has been amazingly smooth and fast.  Of course, they've been in business far longer than Super Chix - but not as long as Yum! Brands' other chains, at least on a national scale.

When we visited earlier this week, I had no idea Super Chix was owned by as accomplished a restaurant business as Yum! Brands.  Our experience there Monday night didn't give any indication, either.  I figured it was some chicken place from Dallas that was expanding into our corner of the Fort Worth - Dallas area.  The restaurant's finish-out looked cheap and temporary, with paint already peeling from sheets of faux tiles, an exposed ceiling that was already dusty, and an overall color and materials scheme that was uninspired at best.

Not that dining in any Chick-fil-A is an aesthetic delight, either.

But as Yum! Brands hones their latest concept, and if Super Chix takes off, I suppose our original location here in central Arlington will have some claim to fame simply for being the first.  After all, if it can thrive in the fast-food mecca that has taken over the intersection of Cooper and Park Row, that will say a lot.

Whether that says people prefer to spend their chicken sandwich dollars specifically at a direct Chick-fil-A competitor, however, is less exciting.

After all, gay marriage is becoming for liberal progressives what pro-life advocacy is for right-wing conservatives.  Only in America could a fried chicken sandwich be considered propaganda!

Update 5/28/16:  While fueling up the Honda this afternoon, I looked across Cooper Street, and noticed that Super Chix had finally closed down.  Looked like it had been drawing scant business for months, but now, all the signs have been removed and the lights turned off inside.  So... a run time of approximately two years?  In the restaurant world, it's probably not a bad record.

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