Chef Christine Cikowski was no stranger to running a foodservice enterprise when she and business partner Josh Kulp started Honey Butter Fried Chicken in 2013. The Chicago-based partners had been running an underground dinner series called Sunday Dinner Club since 2005. In that time, the Honey Butter Fried Chicken became one of the most popular offerings.
Many a Southern chef has put their own unique spin on a family recipe, but since both Cikowski and Kulp grew up in the Chicago suburbs, they took a different tack in reinventing the classic item.
“We’re going to approach this from a technique standpoint, not from a my-grandmother-made-this,” Cikowski says. “We definitely wanted it to have that sort of [Southern] touchstone, but it couldn’t just be all tradition. We’re a Midwest restaurant; we’re Midwest chefs. We’re interested in all different types of cuisines.”
Honey Butter Fried Chicken might douse its mac ‘n’ cheese with pimento cheese, but it also throws some Wisconsin Cheddar into the mix. Other varied flavors pop up in the menu, from the Schmaltz Smashed Potatoes (a clarified chicken or goose fat originating in Central Europe) to creamed corn with Thai green curry to the kale and cabbage slaw with a yogurt-cumin sauce in place of the heavy mayo and bursts of pomegranate seeds.
For Cikowski, Honey Butter Fried Chicken is a way to apply what she and Kulp have learned from fine dining and share it on a bigger scale. Through fast casual, chefs can grow their influence and serve greater numbers.
“What I like about fast casual and what I like about what we do is that … it’s very accessible to a larger group of people,” Cikowski says. “I would say what works for us is picking something that we already did in fine dining and stripping it down and making it its own separate thing.”
The commitment to customer service is another component that elevates the overall Honey Butter Fried Chicken experience; employees are paid living wages and receive benefits like insurance and sick leave. Cikowski says taking care of the team helps the business grow and everyone involved flourish.
As a woman chef and fast casual owner, Cikowski is well aware of the national conversation calling for more women in foodservice. She says her own career has been a fortunate one with minimal prejudice or harassment because of her gender, although other women have not been as lucky. At the same time, she can see the tides changing.
“I think it’s easier for women to start their own businesses now, and it’s encouraged, especially with fast casual. It’s a really good opportunity to reach a wider audience as opposed to a very limited audience,” Cikowski says. “The more that women are out there, doing these business and creating these products and being a part of them, being the face of them, that will only serve to further … the equality in our industry.”
As of now, Honey Butter Fried Chicken has one location in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood. In addition to running the fast casual, Cikowski and Kulp are still creating one to two menus each month for their Sunday Dinner Club. These two businesses keep them plenty busy but Cikowski says there are plenty of ideas floating around for Honey Butter’s future and possible endeavors.
First and foremost, Cikowski says they have an obligation to a lot of other people—employees, as well as customers.
“I look at [Honey Butter] as my child in a way. … What does it want to do? It has a couple of directions it could go in right now, and it’s sort of trying to figure out what its best move is,” Cikowski says. “What I would like to see for it is that it grows in a responsible way and it allows other people to fulfill their dreams. … It’s our job as owners to be responsible in the way that we expand it.”
By Nicole Duncan