My obsession with regional chains began at Raising Cane’s. On a trip to New Orleans, I saw one from the drive-thru line at the Frozen Daquiri chain. I asked my friend what it was, to which he replied, “it’s a chicken finger joint.”
“Yea. Chicken Fingers. It’s really awesome. You mean you’ve never been there? We should go.” Daquiri’s in hand, off we went in search of chicken in his grandparents’ Mercury.
The first thing that hit me was the air conditioning. It’s hard to live without in Louisiana. The second thing that hit me was how new the restaurant seemed. The decor felt modern, like a Skate Shop or Renovated loft. It felt hip, not like a hangover from the 80′s, which is how many McDonald’s feel. On an interior brick wall they had painted an enormous mural of their logo, Warhol-esque photographs hung on the wall, and pop music played on the speakers. Much more compelling than any Burger King I’ve frequented.
So they nailed the concept. How was the food? Well, for a place that serves only chicken fingers, not bad. Their crinkle cut fries reminded me of school lunches, but not in a bad way: crispy fry on the outside, light potato on the interior, and a proprietary dipping sauce, that most say is like ketchup, mayo, and Tony’s Creole Seasoning. The fingers themselves were pretty good: meaty and crispy, with a good meat-to-breading ratio. All too often, chicken fingers have too little chicken, too little fry, or too much of either. They had the ratio down pat.
What struck me most, though, was the story of the founder, Todd Graves. Printed on the wall inside the store was a short background on the chain. Todd came up with the idea while at LSU. He wrote up a business plan for a class he was taking and received a poor grade. Undeterred, he and a friend worked jobs on oil rigs and Alaskan fishing vessels to make the money to open the first restaurant. Today, this little Louisiana chain that could is now in over 10 states and has spread well beyond the South.
And I had never heard of it.
I knew there were other chains like it out there. My hometown, Pittsburgh, had Primanti Brothers, a local favorite that few knew outside of Western PA. I had only ever seen D’Angelo Sub Shops in New England. Jeffrey Lebowski’s darling burger joint, In-and-Out, has yet to make an Eastern US debut.
Remember back to your first summer camp, or your freshman year of college, that first time away from home? Remember meeting people from new places, and talking about what you had back home? “You put french fries on sandwiches? That’s so weird!” That’s what I’m trying to capture.