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The Crack Shack aims to bring fine-dining chicken to the masses

Premium ingredients and a focus on the communities it serves help drive the concept’s success


The Crack Shack is a seven-unit fast-casual chain based in San Diego that started as an offshoot of Juniper & Ivy, a dinner-only fine-dining restaurant founded in 2014.

One of the founders of that restaurant, Mike Rosen, was getting offers to rent the shed that was located on Juniper & Ivy’s property, and he decided instead to do something with it himself.

“We wanted to do one thing, and do it better than anyone else in town, and we landed on chicken,” said Dan Peña, a cofounder of The Crack Shack and now its director of operations.

Originally the menu was far-flung and wide ranging.

“We’re fine-dining guys, so we didn’t really know what we were doing,” he said. “So the first iteration of the menu had four different types of deviled eggs, a chicken liver fried farro, a bunch of breakfast sandwiches, some croquettes … we were just kind of playing around.”

But soon they narrowed their focus to bone-in fried chicken, sandwiches and salads, all made from the same ingredients as at Juniper & Ivy, including high-end chicken from suppliers such as Jidori and Red Bird, local produce, and premium bread from local bakeries. It also had 20 rotating draft beers, bocce courts outside, and a fun feel that appealed to families and hipsters alike.

Popular items on the menu now include sandwiches such as the Cali Drip, made with pollo asado, fries, chipotle-bacon mayonnaise, pickled onions and jalapeño peppers, and Oaxaca cheese on a torta roll, and the Firebird, which is spicy fried thigh, ranch dressing, fried onions and pickles on a potato roll.

Chicken oysters — tender morsels where the thigh meets the back that are prized among chefs — are breaded and fried like New England clam bellies and served with lemon and mustard seed tartar sauce. Salads include classic slaw, upgraded with some pickled Fresno chiles, and the Baja Chop with guacamole, radishes, and cotija cheese tossed with charred poblano pepper dressing.

There are also loaded fries and sharable meals of fried chicken, nuggets, biscuits, fries, slaw, and cookies.

Peña said he thought The Crack Shack would be something that he and Juniper & Ivy’s chef, Jon Sloan, could easily run in the afternoon and then return to the fine-dining restaurant for dinner service.

“We had really low expectations for The Crack Shack when we first started. … Maybe we’d do like $1.5 million in sales,” Peña said. “The first year we did over $7 million.”

So they opened two other locations in Southern California, in Encinitas and Costa Mesa, and then opened in the Utah communities of Salt Lake City, Lehi, and Riverton, as well as on the Las Vegas Strip.

Those are obviously quite different markets, and the restaurants adjusted accordingly.

“In Las Vegas they don’t want salads,” Peña said. “They want cheesy fries, they want bone-in fried chicken, they want a lot of booze, and they want to be in and out quickly.” San Diego is more slow-moving and produce-driven, and in Utah they drink a lot less and want a more family-oriented experience.

Utahns do like soft drinks, however, so The Crack Shack developed a line of $7 Shack Sips, including the Mule in the Henhouse, made with strawberry, lime, grenadine, mint, and ginger beer, and the Dirty Bird, with blackberry, Sprite and vanilla cream, that bring the bar experience that’s an important aspect of the other Crack Shacks to a non-drinking segment.

Average per-person checks are still lower in Utah — around $26, whereas they’re closer to $35 in San Diego, according to Peña.

Each restaurant has its own chef, and Peña said that as the chain expands, new restaurants will respond to the needs of their communities, working with local breweries as well as produce purveyors, ice cream makers, chicken producers, and bakeries.

And expand it will: Peña said nine locations are slated to open this year, including two in the  Houston area; one in the Denver suburb of Littleton, Colo.; Phoenix and Scottsdale in Ariz.; and a fourth Utah location, in St. George.

“We want to be a part of the communities we’re in,” Peña said. “We definitely want to partner with every local brewer that we can in the area and make sure that we’re representing the market there.”

Vote for The Crack Shack in the Chicken Showdown on LinkedIn or Instagram.

Meet the other Chicken Showdown contenders here.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]

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