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
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.