Tyler Phillips stood in the back of his parents’ home in Potomac and surveyed his burgeoning poultry empire.
Lined up in front of him were the three chicken coops he’d been up building until midnight. His white van was gassed up and ready to go. The hens were already inside the coop he was delivering to a customer a 10-minute drive away.
He fished a ringing cellphone out of the front pocket of his shorts. “Hello, this is Tyler. How can I help you?”
It was another person who wanted to rent chickens.
Since Phillips, 26, and his partner Diana Samata, 25, built their first coop out of scrap wood 2 ½ years ago, demand for rental chickens has grown so rapidly that they can barely build enough coops to fill their orders. As of June, their business, RentaCoop, had 70 coops and chick incubators out on loan. About a third of their customers end up buying the hens, coop and all. They are looking for a franchisee in New York or Connecticut by year’s end, and, eventually, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Their success is a new twist on the backyard chicken boom, which has been gaining momentum in cities and suburbs for much of the past decade. Once the domain of die-hard foodies, the coops are now being embraced by more casual poultry fans, who like the idea of having a couple of hens around without a long-term commitment.
Many get into it for the fresh eggs, but they stay for the fulfilling relationship.
“What they don’t realize in the beginning is that the hens have a lot of personality,” said Phillips, a lanky redhead who used to work for his mother and dabble in online poker. “When it’s time to go back to the farm, [the families] are no longer saying goodbye to a chicken. They are saying goodbye to a pet and friend.”
The DiPaolas have had their coop for only a couple of weeks, but the youngest of their four children, 7-year-old Emily, has already fallen in love with Amy Fowler, a golden comet hen. (The other hen, Princess Lay-ah, scratched Emily the first day, which hurt her chances for a deeper relationship.)
“Separation anxiety set in on Day Four,” reported Lara DiPaola , who has had to tell her daughter, “No, you cannot sleep with the chicken.”
Renting the chickens and their coop for four weeks is costing the Anne Arundel County family $160. Another $125 buys another four weeks — already a certainty at this point for the DiPaolas. That money can be used toward the $615 price of buying the coop, the hens, watering dish and other essentials. (Roosters are not part of the rental package. They are too mean and too noisy. And the hens can lay eggs without them.)
Lara DiPaola, 42, is more comfortable around chickens than many RentaCoop customers. She grew up collecting eggs before school as a child in rural California, and she never thought of them as pets. When her Brooklyn-bred husband talked her into the idea of backyard chickens, she became an object of familial ridicule.
“My parents are making endless jokes about the fact that I got suckered into renting chickens,” DiPaola said. “They laugh so hard you can’t have a conversation.”
Chicken-renting businesses have been around for at least five years, but they began to proliferate recently. Similar outfits have sprung up in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Alabama.
Jenn Tompkins, who with her husband, Phil Tompkins, recently started Rent The Chicken outside Pittsburgh, attributes the popularity of renting chickens to people’s desire to have “their farm closer to their table.”
The couple thought they would have maybe 15 orders their first season in business. But so far, they are at triple that number. They advertised at the last Chicks in the Hood, a tour of urban chicken coops in Pittsburgh. But mostly their business has grown by word of mouth.
For some, backyard chickens have become an aspirational commodity. You can now buy coops from Williams-Sonoma or admire the Architectural Digest spread of the coop that supermodel Gisele Bundchen and her Patriots quarterback husband Tom Brady installed behind their “ecochateau” in Los Angeles. (They recently sold the joint, hens and all, to rapper-entrepreneur Dr. Dre.) If your tastes run more toward Louis XIV or Louis Vuitton, there is the $100,000 “Beau Coop,” a “bespoke Versailles-inspired Le Petit Trianon house” sold by Neiman Marcus. It comes complete with a chandelier, “broody room” and library filled with chicken and gardening books.
Corporate America has not ventured into the chicken-rental business, which remains a mostly mom-and-pop phenomenon. Tompkins said she worked in retail and taught motorcycle safety before taking up chicken renting.
Phillips and Samata, who taught ballet part time, started RentaCoop with less than $50, using salvaged wood and hinges, and old tools from Phillips’s father and grandfather. Phillips was perhaps less intimidated than the others by the idea of entrusting his livelihood to chicken rentals because he had seen his mother build a mobile petting zoo business called Squeals on Wheels. (The back of the family’s property is a menagerie, filled with goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens and alpacas.)
Phillips is also not quite as sentimental about chickens as his customers. If he ends up with a verboten rooster, he has a nice chicken dinner. He also does not ponder the kinds of metaphysical conundrums that pop up on backyard chicken chat boards, such as, “Do chickens feel love?”
All that matters is that humans such as Dane Strother do.
Strother, 52, is a Democratic media consultant who lives in Potomac. On a Saturday in late May, Phillips followed him, pushing a coop, around the side of a well-tended brick house with cream siding, past a slightly neglected-looking swing set, to a shady spot underneath some tall trees. Then he put the coop down and let the two hens out.
Strother was full of questions. How long did they need to be out? How often does the coop have to be cleaned? “I’m a liberal. I don’t want to have unhappy chickens,” he quipped.
Strother said there were foxes around. Phillips told him he would need to stay in the yard with the hens whenever they were out of the coop. That meant he would also need to know how to catch them and put them back. By then, the birds were scoping out their new digs and wandering around in opposite directions. Phillips demonstrated by coming up behind one and deftly snatching it. All eyes turned to Strother.
“The only chicken I’ve ever held was fried,” he said.
Strother crouched slightly, spread his arms wide, and took a few steps toward one of the birds, which scampered away.
“The slower you go, the slower she goes,” Phillips said.
Strother tried one more time and caught her.
Over the next few weeks, love blossomed. Strother often works from home, and from his window, he began to notice how one of the hens loved seeing her reflection and wandered around looking for glass panes or jumped onto a table on his deck to gaze into his Mac screen. The other was a bug-eating machine.
His 17-year-old son also took to the chickens and brought friends over to see them. The 13-year-old was less enthusiastic. “The 13-year-old thinks I’m weird, but he thought that prior to the chickens,” Strother said.
Not that he cared. He had made up his mind. Colonel and Sanders were staying.
“I’ll have them until I die,” he declared. “Or they do.”