Honey Butter Fried Chicken Has Survived for Ten Years—and Supported Its Staff and Their Aspirations Along the Way
June 12, 2023
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What does it take to keep a business open for a successful decade in the notoriously difficult restaurant industry? “The image of butter melting on chicken—that really helps,” says Josh Kulp, a co-owner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year.
Obviously, there’s a bit more to surviving in the low-margin, competitive, physically exhausting restaurant business, especially during a global pandemic that shut down the industry, and Kulp and his co-owner Christine Cikowski know it. “There’s no magic,” Cikowski says. “It’s just, keep trying to get better every day, and making changes where we need to make changes, and listening to people on our team, and just keep going for it.”
Kulp and Cikowski listen to people on their team perhaps more than many other restaurateurs. They offer paid parental leave and wages that don't require tips to be livable, and have offered health insurance to their employees almost since their opening, at a time when very few restaurants did so (or could afford to do so). Even today, health insurance is a rarity in the industry, especially plans that include dependents, as HBFC’s does.
HBFC's owners accept suggestions and recommendations from their staff. “I’ve had one million ridiculous ideas, and never once have I felt like it was immediately shut down because it was ridiculous,” writes Cam Waron, HBFC’s culinary director and first employee, who is still there after a decade. Many employees have worked at HBFC for years: at their five-year anniversary, they get an embroidered sweatshirt, but now Kulp and Cikowski have realized they need to start thinking about a gift for an employee's tenth year with them.
Waron and his wife Becca Grothe, who served as sous chef for Kulp and Cikowski’s Sunday Dinner Club meals and also worked at HBFC for a stint, are direct beneficiaries of Kulp and Cikowski’s support of their staff. Grothe opened her own restaurant, TriBecca’s Sandwich Shop, down the street from HBFC in 2022 with the help of Cikowski and Kulp, who are co-owners; Waron sells inventive potato donuts under the name Tuber Donuts out of the shop.
Kulp and Cikowski encouraged Grothe after she served a version of a Cubano sandwich at a Sunday Dinner Club, and during the pandemic allowed her to host pop-ups of TriBecca’s at HBFC to refine her offerings. They then used their own experience to help her through all the complicated business aspects of opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant: the permitting, the accounting, the staffing, the promotion, the menu choices, the supplier connections.
“The biggest struggle is finding the money to make it happen,” Grothe writes. “I think that having someone believe in your concept and your dream like Josh and Christine did with TriBecca’s was monumental in making that happen.” Not only were they “really incredible mentors [who] taught me so much about the business side of owning a restaurant,” Grothe writes; “Christine was so integral in teaching me how to navigate the restaurant industry as a woman. It can be really difficult, and she provided great guidance for me.” (Grothe is a mother in an industry notoriously difficult for mothers, and also benefited during the pandemic from the support of The Abundance Setting, a nonprofit founded by Beverly Kim of HBFC’s neighbor Parachute to support mothers in the industry.)
Grothe and Waron aren’t the only HBFC employees to draw on Kulp and Cikowski’s experience and support. Prep and line cook Tameisha Brown has hosted pop-ups of her Jamaican concept Be Irie at HBFC, using the restaurant’s staff, suppliers, ordering system, and space, as she works toward opening her own restaurant. Alejandro “Ale” Gonzalez and Enrique “Quique” Ortiz are best friends from Puerto Rico who both work as culinary managers at HBFC. They launched their jibarito-focused pop-up Moncho Moncheo at HBFC. HBFC’s social media promotes other alumni who have launched their own projects, even outside of Chicago.
“Working with them has always felt like being part of a team and a collaboration,” write Ortiz and Gonzalez. “When they talk to you, it's out of genuine interest, and they want to learn from you.That can be rare in the industry, from our experience.”
Kulp and Cikowski’s desire to support their employees’ aspirations comes out of both a seemingly sincere belief in the food and concepts as well as a recognition of their own experience in the food industry. They met while attending culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago and launched Sunday Dinner Club in 2005, soon after graduating. They served multi-course, seasonal, local meals out of their homes as well as burgers at Green City Market; their honey butter fried chicken was first served on a Sunday Dinner Club menu.
“When Josh and I first started Sunday Dinner Club, people helped us,” Cikowski recalls. She was working at the legendary, late Blackbird in the West Loop, and was allowed to use some of its equipment and add onto its ingredient orders. “It’s been really lovely for us to have had help, launch our own thing, and now give help,” she says. “It just feels really good to pay it back and also pay it forward.”
The always changing Sunday Dinner Club went on hiatus during the pandemic and has yet to return, so the projects of HBFC employees also give Kulp and Cikowski an outlet to keep exploring new dishes and foods. HBFC runs specials—they’ll be bringing back some of their favorite sandwiches as well as different iterations of their dump cake over the summer leading up to their tenth anniversary on September 14—but the basic menu doesn’t change.
“We do family meal [where an employee cooks food for the rest of the staff] at Honey Butter all the time, and different cooks will make the meals, and we truly eat some incredible food behind the scenes at the restaurant,” says Kulp. That’s how he first tried Gonzalez and Ortiz’s food, and encouraged them to bring it to a wider audience, just like with Grothe’s Cubano. “We’re very fortunate to have the outlet with our restaurants to be able to use them as a platform for cooks and our team to be able to show off their skills and to have some opportunity to share their delicious food…It really is in line with the ethos of what we started as with Sunday Dinner Club, with just sharing that great meal with people.”
Kulp and Cikowski “are servant leaders,” Brown of Be Irie writes. “They live the values of Honey Butter and genuinely care about the staff and people they serve.”
They knew they wanted to offer benefits to employees from the start, and simply insisted on incorporating that into their business plan at the beginning. “There were certain things that we weren’t willing to compromise on, so when we first started—I’ll be very frank—we were flying blind,” Kulp says. “We just added these things and made it work. That’s not what I’d recommend to young restaurateurs.” Even ten years in, “It is a daily, weekly, monthly challenge to balance all of those numbers,” Kulp says. “I probably should have taken someone’s advice and, I don’t know, been an accountant or lawyer.”
They also took something of a chance opening in Avondale, a residential neighborhood that had a few destination restaurants in 2013—Kuma’s and the now closed Hot Doug’s and original location of Urban Belly—but wasn’t necessarily known for its dining scene. Ten years later, there are numerous buzzy places nearby: Parachute and Wherewithall, Metropolitan Brewing, Eden, Soul and Smoke, Thattu. Avondale has even been named one of the “coolest neighborhoods in the world” by Time Out.
“It’s lovely for us to have so many other restaurants right around us, that we can lean on each other, talk to each other, be in it together and support each other and promote each other,” says Cikowski. “There’s no downside as far as I’m concerned.”
HBFC is celebrating the neighborhood and their anniversary on Wednesday, June 14 with The Roscoe Rewind, a party on their expansive patio featuring their chicken, Sunday Dinner Club's burger, and sausages from their old neighbor, Hot Doug’s. Tickets are already sold out, but Cikowski says HBFC will likely plan another big event closer to their actual anniversary in September.
“One of my favorite memories is the day that we opened our restaurant,” she says. “We didn’t know what to expect, because we had never opened a restaurant before…To actually open that thing and see how many people came by and supported us and how we just got annihilated—it was awesome and really hard, but amazing.”
It’s a hard business, and requires lots of support to make it through—support that Cikowski and Kulp are providing to their own employees so that they, too, might have fond memories of the opening day of their own restaurant ten years on.
UPDATE: HBFC has announced that they will be opening a new location in Glencoe, where they will introduce some new menu items, with a target date of Fall 2023.