The Untold Truth Of Harold's Chicken Shack

Chicago is justly proud of its local food culture, from its overloaded hot dogs (but with no ketchup, ever) to its deep-dish pizza and Italian beef sandwiches. Created by Chicago's German and Italian immigrants as affordable meals for their working-class peers, as per Culture Trip, these sorts of meals became a treasured part of Chicago's landscape and are now sought after by locals and visitors alike.

But for many Black Chicagoans, no dish says "Chicago" and "home" more than a serving of fried chicken from Harold's Chicken Shack. While the Chicago-based chain, founded in 1950, has grown to nearly 40 branches nationwide, it tends to be overlooked by tourists and restaurant guides. That's largely because most of its Chicago branches are located in un-touristy, historically Black neighborhoods in the west and south parts of town. This is starting to change, however, as more diners are discovering the wonders of Harold's crunchy chicken and the distinctive culture that has sprung up around it.

Harold's Chicken Shack is deeply rooted in Chicago

Few fast-food franchises reflect a sense of place more vividly than Harold's Chicken Shack. According to the Chicago Reader, its founder, Harold Pierce, already ran a restaurant in the south side of Chicago offering chicken feet and dumplings when he decided to branch out to fried chicken. His first few experiments were such a hit that in 1950, he partnered with a local poultry vendor to open his first Harold's Chicken Shack, a modest take-out shop. As demand for his chicken grew, he started offering franchises to friends and family members, keeping a running tally in his head of what each owed him.

Even the restaurant's logo — an unforgettable image of a crown-wearing, axe-wielding king chasing a chicken — was inspired by the surrounding community. Locals started calling Pierce "the chicken king," and he embraced that image. Critics agree that his reputation was well-earned.

Beyond the deliciousness of the chicken, Harold's origin story is a point of pride for Black Chicagoans. "The family story of Black entrepreneurship and creating something new in this place that is full of opportunity is such a Black Chicago story," Northwestern University lecturer Arionne Nettles told Chicago Eater. "Everything about Harold's is Black and everything about Harold's is really Chicago."

There's a lot of variation between Harold's branches

For most restaurant franchises, consistency is king. No matter which McDonald's you go to, you'll see the exact same menu and promotions and a very similar (if not identical) dining room. A Big Mac that you could order today in New York will look and taste almost exactly like the one you had in Los Angeles last week.

Harold's Chicken Shack is a conspicuous exception to this rule. From the beginning, per the Chicago Reader, founder Harold treated his franchisees with a light hand once they'd gotten their restaurants established. Over time, many started to deviate from his operational procedures and even branched out with their own recipes. Many began adding or subtracting menu items at will. 

According to America's Test Kitchen, Pierce was aware of this and allowed it, believing that local owners knew what their immediate community wanted and needed. As a result, serious fans of Harold's pride themselves on the ability to discern the relative advantages and disadvantages of each branch and its offerings. "A true Haroldʼs typically has a bulletproof window in front of the cashier and almost never has WiFi," comedian (and serious Harold's fan) Larry Legend told Chicago magazine.

When ordering at Harold's, don't forget the mild sauce

Besides its unique take on pizza and hot dogs, Chicago — and Black community in south and west Chicago in particular — has its own distinctive style of fried chicken. The version at Harold's Chicken Shack is arguably its best-known exemplar. Its exceptional richness comes from the use of both vegetable oil and tallow for frying (according to Chicago Reader, Harold's arch-rival Uncle Remus uses lard). But the most distinctive feature of Chicago-style fried chicken is that it almost always comes with mild sauce, a sweet, tangy concoction said to be a combination of ketchup, barbecue sauce, and hot sauce (per America's Test Kitchen.)

Some Harold's fans will tell you the mild sauce is non-negotiable, and omitting it will instantly brand you as an uninformed outsider, as per Chicago magazine. However, Harold's superfans are not a monolith and not all devotees agree. "No sauce. I'm not a sauce eater. I wanna taste the flavor," Harold's CEO Kristen Pierce told ABC 7.

A ranking of Harold's branches sparked debate

The differences in quality and atmosphere between different Harold's branches is so well known that fans don't simply love Harold's. They love their particular Harold's and will happily defend their favorite outlet against all others.

For this reason, Chicago magazine must have known it would get some blowback by printing a supposedly definitive ranking of Harold's branches, but they had no idea how outraged some readers would be. Before presenting an alternate ranking by South Chicago native and YouTuber Larry Legend, they explained that some branches favored by readers weren't ranked because they weren't official Harold's franchises. Legend, however, disagreed and for a good reason. "I understand and respect the concept in which the list was made, but Iʼm a true South Sider, and we donʼt care about whatʼs an 'official Haroldʼs' and whatʼs not," he said (via Chicago).

Harold's has been celebrated by hip hop stars

There are foods that are so special that they not only inspire cravings, but move fans to burst into songs. For quite a few Chicago rappers, the fried chicken from Harold's Chicken Shack is just that food. So beloved is Harold's chicken that, over the past three decades, it's gotten plenty of unsolicited free advertising in the form of affectionate shout-outs by popular hip-hop artists.

The Chicago Reader traces the first Harold's hip-hop reference to 1992, when Common's debut album featured a production team that worked under the name "2pc DRK" (shorthand for a Harold's order for a dark meat meal). In 2015, Chance the Rapper name-checked his favorite Harold's branch in his track with Lil B, "First Mixtape Based Freestyle." So deep is Chance the Rapper's love of their chicken that he even commissioned a Harold's-themed birthday cake with decorations that resembled sauce-dipped wings and fries, as well as the Harold's logo. The most specific musical shout-out to Harold's, however, was Lupe Fiasco's 2018 track entitled, simply, "Harold's" (per the Chicago Reader).

Harold's is growing beyond Chicago

Harold's Chicken Shack may have spent most of its 70-year existence as South Chicago's best-kept secret, but its reputation — and corporate footprint — has started to expand beyond the Windy City. While it's long had branches just across the state border in Indiana, under the leadership of Kristen Pierce, founder Harold Pierce's daughter and current CEO of Harold's Chicken Shack, the restaurant has established franchises farther across the country. Currently, Harold's has branches in locales as varied as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and St. Louis, as well as three restaurants in Georgia (per Harold's). It also has plans to expand to Charlotte and Houston (per ABC 7),

In the Harold's tradition of letting each branch choose its own operational strategy, the out-of-state outposts of Harold's may be quite different from what South Chicago traditionalists expect. While most of the earlier branches were modest, functional spots meant mostly for takeout orders, some of the newer branches (such as its Los Angeles location) feature lavishly decorated event spaces and a full bar. The fried chicken and mild sauce, however, remain non-negotiable.

Here's how you order at Harold's

Aficionados will tell you that Harold's isn't just any generic chain restaurant. Rather, it's more like a club, with its own unique code of conduct and expectations for all who enter. For instance, even if you're a first-time diner, one thing you must never do is stand at the counter, silently gawking as you try to make sense of it all. Instead, be sure that you make up your mind before you get to the counter and don't dawdle, as per Eater Chicago.

Being specific means knowing exactly how to order to get the full Harold's experience. "If you're not from here, you've got to be taught how to do it. You've got to," Harold's superfan Larry Legend told Eater Chicago. He offers the following advice: "Even if they fried the chicken to perfection, you're always gonna ask them to fry it hard, and you have to have the sauce on the chicken," he said. 

You can also request extra seasoning (salt and pepper or house-made lemon pepper), Harold's CEO Kristen Pierce told ABC 7. And, Legend explained to Chicago, if the cashier taking your order seems gruff, don't take it personally. "The meaner the cashier, the better the food. This is Haroldʼs science," he said.

There's a secret menu item you can make yourself

When you order a chicken dinner at Harold's, the chicken parts of your choice will be served atop a pile of fries. In most Harold's outlets, that will in turn be placed on top of a slice or two of white bread (just be aware that some Harold's branches may charge extra for the bread). The fries will probably be soft rather than crunchy, as per Eater Chicago, and the bread may seem like a bland afterthought. Still, don't ignore them, or you'll be missing a quintessential Harold's experience known as the French fry sandwich.

This sandwich is not just carbs. Instead, as per Chicago Reader, it's pure synergy of all the meal's components. And once you've got all those components together, from the sauce to the chicken — and yes, even that grease — you can assemble a seriously delicious sandwich. 

Harold's store numbering is a mystery

Though Harold's restaurants are numbered, the numbering system is far from transparent. A quick glance at its list of current restaurants shows 27 Harold's establishments in the Chicago area, where the chain was founded. Yet those numbers range between three and 64, with many digits in the sequence missing. And Harold's Chicken No. 2, which logically should have been one of the earlier branches in Chicago, is instead one of its newer outlets near Las Vegas. Chicago magazine confirms that Harold's numbering system is neither chronological, nor is it based on any geographic factors. Yet, it's pure coincidence that Harold's No. 95 is on 95th Street.

Some have posited that the numbers are either meaningless or up to the owner's whims, as a podcast for America's Test Kitchen guessed. Chicago magazine hypothesizes that the numbering system may be related to the fact that different restaurants were originally owned by different branches of the Pierce family, each with its own numbering system. But current Harold's CEO Kristen Pierce offers a simpler explanation. "Being in business for 70 years, some of those old locations have closed. So we have skipped around in numbers to come back and fill those numbers," she explained.

Your meal at Harold's is made to order

Harold's Chicken Shack may be a casual take-out joint, but it's not fast food. So, don't expect to walk in, choose a few pieces from under a heat lamp, and be on your way, because that's not going to happen. Instead, per founder Harold Pierce's instructions, your chicken won't even go into the fryer until you place your order. This will ensure your chicken comes to you as fresh and flavorful as possible. "We don't use heat lamps, we don't use frozen product. Everything is fresh," Harold's CEO Kristen Pierce told ABC 7.

This means that when you go to Harold's, you should be prepared to wait. According to Harold's, your order will take between 12 and 15 minutes to prepare. While the growing popularity of Harold's shows that diners don't mind the wait, many franchisees have attempted to speed up the process (per Chicago Reader), resulting in some of the well-known variations in flavor and quality amongst branches. Even at a corporate level, attempts have been made to streamline the cooking process while honoring Harold Pierce's founding vision. One proposal would have had franchisees pre-cook the chicken for five minutes, then complete the process once an order is placed, shortening the customer wait time to eight minutes.

Beware of Harold's knockoffs

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it's a testament to Harold's popularity that the chain has been plagued by numerous unauthorized knockoffs, as some Redditors have reported. We must report that not every place with "Harold's" in its name and fried chicken on the menu is an official branch of Harold's Chicken Shack. So, do your due diligence. Checking the list of branches on the Harold's official website is a good place to start, as it looking for the distinctive Harold's logo (per Reddit).

It's not just diners who get fooled by these knockoff restaurants. In 2017, an investor bought was he thought was an official Harold's branch, only to discover it didn't have a licensing agreement with the chain, according to DNA Info. "Had I known the previous owner did not have a license agreement I would not have spent my money buying it," he said, adding that he planned to work with Harold's corporate office to become an official affiliate. Still, South Chicago diners care less about corporate structures than whether the chicken tastes good, as comedian Larry Legend told Chicago magazine.