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Road Trippin’ for Chicken: Benefits of Small, Mom ‘n Pop, Locally-Owned Businesses

…I’ll admit it. I’m a foodie. What’s that, you ask? What the heck’s a “foodie?”  (Is that even a word?)

Merriam-Webster defines the type as “a person having an avid interest in the latest food fads.” That is a definition, yes, but not my kind of definition (thanks for the help, Mr. Webster, but I’ll take it from here). Mr. Webster lost me at “fads.” Is someone with an interest and taste for good – legitimately good – food really going to concern himself with fads? Not so much. That’d be like calling someone with a penchant for acid-washed, pre-distressed jeans a “Fashionista.” Let’s make another attempt at this:

A foodie is someone who knows and likes a good meal, whether making it or eating it…or by the magic of television, watching someone else make and/or eat said food.

If you’ve ever felt compelled enough to make it through an episode of anything on the Food Network, you probably could quality as one, too. Me? Well, I’m more of a “fast-foodie.”

Now, I’ve got my own standards, too. Although my budget doesn’t afford Michelin-star meals, it doesn’t mean I’m munching on every “Mc”-prefaced menu item I can sink my teeth into. If I know something’s good, I’ll happily go out of my way for it, and skip the commonplace meal. Ask my girlfriend.

Starved Rock National Park

Starved Rock National Park

The other week we took a day-trip out to Starved Rock National Park. Yes, the name implies historical significance, but also implies its proximity (or lack thereof) to any kind of dining establishment in the area. This place is so far removed from suburbia I think even a search on Google Maps would register the result, “Dude…even I have no freakin’ idea.”

Mr. Fast Foodie to the rescue! Superpowers include (and are pretty much limited to) finding obscure local dining options in remote areas! Have no fear!

Putting the “small” in “Small Town, USA"

Now, I don’t even remember how it came to my attention, but LTHForum.com – an online message forum for the Chicagoland Area – directed me toward a dinner destination in Ladd, IL (as the picture will show, it puts the “small” into “Small Town, USA”). This online forum is maintained by folks who go on excursions like “Fried Chicken Crawls.” I thought I liked fried chicken. Well, not as much as some people, apparently. They make an event out of finding their next meal. Turns out they even went on a “LaSalle County Fried Chicken Crawl” (you’ve got to love specificity).

And that was the thread that led us to Ladd, IL: population, 1,300 (surging to 1,302 upon our arrival).

The place you’ll likely find most of the 1,300-person population in Ladd, IL on a typical weekend night

There you’ll find Rip’s Tavern, not just known – oh, no – but FAMOUS for their fried chicken. Normally a bar in near-Central Illinois serving fried food sounds like anything but a good idea, but when you’re in the Starved Rock area, it not only sounds good…it sounds great. After that, you’re pretty much resolved to grabbing a rifle and chasing after your dinner in the woods.

So, after a day of canoeing, and hiking, and climbing what seemed like 4,987,678,456 stairs at the park, we had a pretty serious collective appetite, and decided to make the 20-minute trip out to Rip’s. Did I mention they’re serious about their fried chicken? Sure, they have a neon sign shaped like a chicken. But that’s only the tip of the poultry iceberg. Let me explain.

A little too metropolitan and a whole lot too lost, we stepped up to be seated, and a gentleman asked us, “So what’ll you be having?”

Now, I knew OF this place, but I had no idea how it operated. Before I could give my best estimation, and after stumbling around looking for any semblance of a menu, the man broke it down for us (the following is pretty much verbatim):

OWNER: “So what’ll you be having?”

CITY SLICKERS: …??? (Chicken, right? That’s the right answer, right?)

OWNER: “All we serve is chicken. Two pieces, light or dark. It comes with fries.”

CITY SLICKERS: …?!?!

There is no menu on the wall. There is no printed menu at the table. There is no menu, period. We weren’t about to argue with the man of wise chicken sage wisdom, and allowed him to be our Sherpa to help get us to Flavorsville. Two orders of light it was. You can also get an order of fried mushrooms as an appetizer (which we did), though upon being seated, your waitress will ask you if you’d like pickles.

Pickles? Pickles and chicken. (Naturally! I order pickles and chicken all the time! Who doesn’t?)

The do-it-yourself fried pickle appetizer is included. The labor is not.

She returned with two paper, cafeteria-style containers. One was a small bowl of dill pickle chips, the other, a basket filled with what they called “crispies” (this is the moment it paid off to know something about the restaurant before coming). “Crispies” are the collected bits of batter that fall off the chicken in the fryer. Best described as “deconstructed fried pickles,” you’re supposed to pick a pickle chip up, and pinch it in the basket of “crispies,” making an odd taco of sorts.

This was the second riddle from the rural Sphinx. But were we done with our quiz? Oh, no. We still had one more challenge to go. Let’s just say that “Rip’s” is not just the name of the restaurant.

You would think, after the aforementioned, we’d be at least somewhat prepared for the next surprise (perhaps if there were jousting knights to watch, or paper crowns to wear, we would have known). The chicken came, served with a friendly demeanor by the kind waitress. My girlfriend had hers placed in front of her, mine was placed in front of me, and – without thinking – when we both were asked, “So is there anything else I can get you?” we didn’t at all think about one thing: silverware.

Chicken so good you’re encouraged not to waste any time with silverware.

My girlfriend had the good sense to wait for the waitress to return and asked her for a fork, which she was happy to get for her. Now, me, on the other hand? I tried earn some macho points for myself, and made my best attempt to bare-handedly tear apart my chicken, operative word, “attempt.” The waitress was impressed that a city slicker could wrangle the birded beast…until city boy had to go and ask for a fork, too. It was like asking for a pair of arm “floaties” to go in the adult swimming pool. Luckily, they appreciate all their customers the same and forks weren’t a problem to bring out to us.

Yep. “Rips” is also the preferred and favored way of eating their chicken. It’s a hands-on dinner.

I’ll admit I never thought that going out for a fried chicken dinner would turn out to be an exotic adventure, and so much of the experience would be completely unfamiliar. I mean, sure, it could have been a terrible, frightening afternoon. But we were welcomed in, just the same as any of the locals. The owner even thanked us personally for coming and gave us each a card for a free drink, on them, next time we came by.

Now, I’ve had fried chicken at a lot of places. If it were up to me, fried chicken would be my middle name. I’ve been to the “Best.” The “#1.” The “World’s Famous.” And, sure, sometimes the food is good. Really good, even. But what did it for me during my experience at Rip’s was not only the quality, preparation, and flavor of the food, but the experience itself, and how well the friendly service facilitated it, even for outsiders.

I would say, without a doubt, Rip’s is a dining destination and a famous establishment for a good reason. It definitely was a finger-licking-good experience (luckily, napkins were provided). I’ll close out the chicken-picking experience with my reasons for saying that.

What can we learn from a successful, down-home, small-town restaurant like Rip’s Tavern?

 

#1.) Make a happy customer, make a free salesman.

Sometimes the best advertising cannot be read on billboards, or seen on the television, but rather, heard from someone who not only has experience with the product, and enjoys it, but – more importantly – promotes it himself. It was word-of-mouth advertising that brought me here, and I’m sure I’ll earn them a few more customers from sharing my own experience.

#2.) Keep it simple.

Sure, you’ll save money if you don’t have to print a menu, and you’ll save even more money if you never have to re-print it to add or remove items. Rip’s limits their menu to a small number of items that area always fresh and always cooked-to-order. They focus on making a few items really well, rather than making many mediocre. If you take a closer look at the picture of my chicken, you’ll notice the breast and wing are attached, meaning it was sourced locally and butchered by-hand instead of coming frozen from some commercial distributor. The business is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, rumor has it, because they used to purchase their chickens on Monday, and butcher them in-house Tuesday. It makes all the difference in the world when it comes to the quality and taste of their product. They know it, and their customers do, too.

#3.) Make it your own.

Taking a common menu item and making it something special is no small feat. Especially something as common as fried chicken. Just about every “Mom ‘n Pop” restaurant has their own take on fried chicken. Not every chicken joint can make it as memorable as Rip’s. Their success comes from the small details. The no-frills, paper-plate, hands-on approach is simple and admirable. The complimentary pickle appetizer is not only a generous gesture, but an interactive way to involve patrons with the food and approach right from the moment they sit down in the dining room. And the laid-back, all-are-welcome, “Come on back, y’all” mindset of their customer service truly makes it someplace you’ll want to come back to. It’s not only what you serve, but the context of where it’s served.

Next time, come back with some of your friends. And a fork. Several, if you’re feeling generous. None, if you’re in need of cheap entertainment.

Do you have a similar experience to share about a mom ‘n pop business? Have you ever actually been to Rip’s Tavern? What other takeaways can we draw from these examples?

Image credit to Vicky TGAW and Clipart.com. All other post images by Eric Labanauskas.


Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.

Comments

  1. Cybernetic SAM

    I have been there before and we had to wait an hour and half for our order. I will admit, for the price you get a lot of food, plus the side of cracklin’ you get is pretty awesome. However, even though I am a vegetarian now, once upon a time I had an obsession with good home-cooked fried chicken and my father was the best fried chicken cook this side of the Mississippi! I am not lying, so needless to say I was very disappointed at the chicken at Rip’s Chicken. I just felt as though it was lacking.

    No joke, though – friends and family would come from miles around to have my family’s TLC fried chicken, so much so that my dad almost (had he had the means) would have opened a chicken place not unlike the one in Ladd. The character of that town is amazing (though total time warp) and I actually thought that the little ice cream parlor right down the street from Rip’s was amazing as well. The atmosphere is unreal, it looks like it hasn’t been touched in 60 years! So cool! But yes, I agree if you want a unique experience and a lot of food for a very small price, then this is the place to go. But if you are a fried chicken enthusiast, just come on over to my house and I’ll show you fried chicken!

    I remember growing up and having FRIED CHICKEN NIGHT, and those were some of the best years thus far of my life. In a recent movie called “The Help” there was a line that stuck with me: “Fried chicken just tends to make you feel better about life” and I couldn’t agree more! And as I said I don’t miss eating meat in the least, but from time to time I get very sentimental and nostalgic about fried chicken…. which is quite possibly the weirdest thing I think I have ever said. Great post! Sorry I went on and rambled a bit, but it isn’t often you get to talk about sentimental chicken! :)

    • Eric

      Hey, Sam, no worries. “Rambling” should be my middle name (I don’t think I’ve written anything even bordering on “short”).

      There’s a place in Coal City where you can get a full, half-chicken meal for – I think – six, seven bucks. They cook all theirs to order, and the steam coming out of that chicken is so ridiculously nuclear that you best watch yourself when you crack a piece open. That’s probably my favorite. Now, Rip’s? Well, considering that meal was prefaced with a concession-stand-lunch at the park…didn’t take much to please me that night. Homemade is always the best. Especially once we roll into fall and it starts to become that “stick to your ribs” kind of cuisine you associate with a cool fall day.

      There was an ice cream parlor? Down the street? Man, sometimes I’ve got to put my one-track-mind aside and look around a bit. Next time. For sure, next time.

      Nothing wrong with a little nostalgia. And kudos for even more random stuff we’ve in common.

  2. Amy Swanson

    Holy moly, after reading this post I’m hungry for some fried chicken Eric ;)

    I try to eat at local restaurants whenever I can instead of national chains. It’s easier said than done, but I feel better paying my check to a local person than some faceless corporation. Don’t get me wrong, I still eat at major restaurants sometimes, I just try to avoid it when I can.

    My grandparents live in a small town on the Mississippi river where the majority of restaurants are mom ‘n pop style places. One of these restaurants has the best thin crust pizza around! It holds so much sentimental value to it; when my parents were little they’d go there with their families, then when they started dating they’d go there on dates, and now 32 years later they bring their children (my sister and I) there every time we visit my grandparents. The waiters and waitresses may change, but the quality of food never does.

    Great post Eric!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Amy! I’ll admit, the last time I went to a McDonald’s for anything more than a one-dollar-soda was longer than I can actually remember. Sure, I can’t complain about the cheaper prices of homegrown businesses, but what does it for me is the quality and attention to what they do. Nothing’s mindlessly assembled and they honestly have a lot of pride in what they do.

      Have to laugh. Sentiment travels from one generation to another. I remember getting take-out from a grill when I was little. It was a big deal (there was only one restaurant, period). Years later, they opened one down the street from our first house in Orland. And a couple years ago, they opened another near where I’m living now. And it’s become the fast-food place of choice for my girlfriend and myself…kid you not, we’re on a first-name basis.

      Come to think of it? Looks like I just figured out where I’m going for dinner tonight.

      P.S. Don’t even get me started on cooking in the South…went to Memphis in March and practically had to be dragged home from the trip kicking and screaming. :)

    • Amanda

      Same here Amy! This post makes me want some good fried chicken too. And, even though I love Walmart & Aldi, I also do like to support small, mom and pop places too. They’re always the best places to go for certain things, especially fried chicken. =)

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    Great post, Eric! My parents and I try to frequent as many Mom ‘n’ Pop businesses, but it seems like they disappear so quickly in the suburbs. Still, if I ever venture toward Starved Rock, I will definitely make a trip to Rip’s. Although I might skip on the pickles. Your description on how they make/serve them creeps me out a little.

    • Eric

      Thanks, Mandy! I guess that’s why most of them I’ve found have been on road-trips. Small towns usually have the best of them, and their prices make McDonald’s seem like an expensive meal. It seems like the businesses in smaller towns really form a strong relationship with their community, and business just makes itself. The pickles are a much better idea shared. They give them to you for free, and not wanting to be a rude guest, I ate them myself (Shelley’s allergic to gluten so she couldn’t have the breading anyhow). I got a good amount of cracklins in each pickle chip, and even after the pickles were gone…I still have almost an entire paper basket full of the fried stuff. Save your appetite for the chicken and mushrooms…that’s the good stuff!

  4. Bret Bonnet

    This looks yummy! :)

    • Eric

      Tastes just as good – better, even – than it looks! Wonder if they cater…?

  5. Amanda

    Great post Eric! I’ve been to Rip’s twice, the last time was probably 12 years ago though. I remember it pretty close to how you describe it, and the chicken was great! As kids, we always loved getting the pickles and crispies. =) Another place I’ve been that is extremely similar is Sip n Snack in Mendota–I’d suggest another road trip to check that place out too. Very worth it (for the experience and the chicken)–just like Rips.

    • Eric

      Man, I’m continually impressed by just how many QLP’ers not only know about this joint, but love it! Thanks for the tip on Sip ‘n Snack…Shelley and I are headed to the Dells a little than a couple weeks from now. Sounds like a good place to hit on the ride back home!

  6. Ellyn

    This is the best blog I have read yet!!! I just wanted to say thanks to Eric for the free advertisement for Rips. I have been going there since FOREVER!!! Its 40 minutes from where I grew up and my family and I go there about every month. Can’t say it is the healthiest place ever but I LOVE their chicken. The place has been around for more than 60 years with the same family owning it, so you’re right it has a great atmosphere. Also, if anyone is planning on going I will give you a few suggestions… (1) Go early. My favorite time to go is on Sundays and they open at 3pm. I suggest getting there around then, because if you can believe it people will be waiting outside to get in! (2) Be prepared to have a 2 to 3 hour experience. Even if you get there early you will have to wait for the chicken to come out. So I suggest enjoying some cocktails while you wait. (3) If you want to be a TRUE Rips goer you don’t use a fork, but like Eric said the chicken is very HOT, so take a few napkins and use them to protect your hands while you open the chicken. Hope to see everyone there!!

    • Eric

      Thanks, Ellyn! Hey, if the food’s good enough, I’ll make shameless plugs left and right about it. Don’t have to twist my arm, there! I almost feel guilty about not having to wait at all…we went on a Sunday afternoon after spending the day out at Starved Rock, and I guess we just beat the dinner rush in. By the time we were heading out, sure enough, there was a line. I wound up asking for a fork before I tried MacGuyvering my way through that chicken, but thanks for the tip using napkins as oven mitts…that’ll definitely be coming in handy next time around!

  7. Joseph Giorgi

    Eric,

    Awesome post! I’m officially in the mood for fried chicken, and I’m pretty much gonna have to go and hunt some down after work. Of course, a rotisserie chicken is also sounding good right about now. Hmmm.

    A couple points that stood out:

    “They focus on making a few items really well, rather than making many mediocre.”

    That’s definitely the way to do it! In fact, ALL local dives should adhere to that practice.

    “Taking a common menu item and making it something special is no small feat.”

    Couldn’t agree more! Actually, as I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my experience at a bar in Rockford called “LT’s Bar & Grill” — I discovered a few years ago that they have the BEST hot wings I’ve ever tried. Forget “B-Dubs”! LT’s is where it’s at! No joke. It just goes to show that when restaurants (or bars, or grilles, or whatever) really focus their efforts on one aspect of the menu, the customers will take notice, and will likely become brand advocates in the process.

    • Eric

      Remind me, Joe, to write more food blogs if ever I need tips on good, local joints to hit up. I was doing a show out in Beloit a couple years back, and man, I could’ve used a good wing joint, then. Looks like I’ll have a few solid suggestions, for sure, on my way there and back to the Dells. Also looks like I won’t have to give into desperation and make an obligatory stop at the Cracker Barrel. Double bonus.

      Absolutely agree with you, too. The best places take pride, real pride in what they do. There’s a diner – literally, built from a diner car – in Kenosha called “Frank’s Diner” that is easily the smallest dining establishment I’ve ever been in (my friend and I are both six feet tall and we had to duck a couple times when we went), but they make everything, literally everything from scratch. Their bread is to die for, and, word in the street is, they use it to make some pretty killer french toast.

      Viva la Rip’s!

  8. LK

    Mom N Pop restaurants are where you find some of the best food around.

    My dad grew up near Muskegon MI and every time we go up there, we have to stop at this place called US 31 BBQ. The whole family on my dad’s side raves about this place and they’ve even all played around with recipes to try and make similar BBQ pork sandwiches.
    This place, and other mom n pop restaurants always remind me of the show on Food Network, “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives”. I would love to go on a road trip to all the restaurants that show up on that show, if Guy ever needs a co-host, I’m in!!

  9. Eric

    Lauren, I think you’ve got a mighty good idea. To put it in perspective: I am to roadside dining what you are to Mac ‘n Cheese.

    Unfortunately – like you said – the Mayor of Flavortown (i.e., Guy Fieri) beat me to the punch. There’s actually a place he went to for “Triple-D” that I visited with a friend in Kenosha, Wisconsin (Frank’s Diner)…looks like I’ll have to make a series out of this.

    All the rest y’all at QLP: keep the dining tips ‘a comin’. We could probably assemble our own version of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” from all our own suggestions!

  10. Ryan

    I’m not sure when this was written, but I’ll give you a little more Rip’s info for your next trip. I grew up in Ladd, and my entire family still lives in the area. I moved an hour away to the Quad Cities about 7 years ago. I still like to visit for chicken on a regular basis. Rip’s was oringally opened in 1936 by Silvio “Rip” Gualandri. He and his wife owned the tavern. They began serving chicken at some point to hungry bar patrons, and of course, the rest, and the recipe, is history. Their family has been involved in the restaurant since it’s beginnings, and 2 grandsons currently operate the restaurant. Bill takes the orders and manages the dining room, and Dave is in charge of the kitchen. There were other partners at points in time, and everyone worked there, either as a bartender or cook. The chicken comes from a single supplier, potatoes are hand cut into fries in the basement, and on a Saturday from Fall through Spring, they make the best deep fried burgers around. I spent nearly every Wednesday as a kid being driven to the alley, walked into the back door, and picked up my family’s to go order from the kitchen window. Even as I got older and got my to go orders, I had a special rubber floor mat where I placed my grease-soaked bag of deliciousness. I can honestly say I have NEVER used a fork to eat their chicken. Another hidden gem that they have is their deep fried mushrooms….ask for mustard with them, you might get a packet or 3, or sometimes a lucky bottle appears. Another historical note, in the 80′s, Rip’s had a devastating fire. The entire restaurant was rebuilt. Old booths that used to be in the front went away, the bar got larger, brick was added to the interior, and a game room appeared. The bathrooms actually improved too, there never used to be any at the front, and there were 2 small ones in the back. The quote from Bill was “We still have the recipe” after the fire. Glad you enjoyed it, it definately is a part of Americana from my small town of 1300 people. Oh, and by the way, Starved Rock is a state park, not a national park. There are several awesome small restaurants in the area who serve good, original recipe food, as many of the area residents are of Italian decent. Verruchi’s in Spring Valley is well known for pasta and chicken, and is another place with several family members involved in the operation. Lou’s LaGrotto in Peru has awesome deep dish, non-Chicago style pizza and the best garlic nuggets ever. Happy hunting!

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