IT WAS A FOWL DAY ON CONNECTICUT AVENUE LAST month when the Chik'n Bucket, a Cleveland Park institution for more than 23 years, held its own wake.
Chik'n Bucket loyalists streamed through to pay their last respects to Howie Rothenberg and Steve Segal, two men who had made their mark on the neighborhood by proving that fried chicken doesn't just come from a finger-licking colonel. "I almost cried," Cleveland Park resident Tom Goodwin said. "The chicken's great, but the people make the difference."
Actually, Rothenberg and Segal wanted to have their chicken and eat it too. They bought the Chik'n Bucket building at 3514 Connecticut Ave. in 1977 after Rothenberg had rented there for 13 years. Then last year they got an offer they felt they couldn't refuse -- an offer Rothenberg says was on the order of $1 million for the building. "It's something that you dream about," he says. "We were not prepared for it."
But like lots of small-business owners who want to cash in on decades of sweat, the two men weren't prepared for the trauma their decision to sell would cause the neighborhood. "We knew the day of reckoning would be coming, but we didn't know it would be so hard for us to take, and we didn't know our customers would take it so hard," says Rothenberg. So he proposed selling the building but leasing the storefront back. When that didn't work out, they sold the equipment and the name to two former employes who, with the old owners' blessing, plan to keep the place going.
Chik'n Bucket's story is part of a larger controversy over development in Cleveland Park that began when a Metro station opened in the neighborhood and real estate prices skyrocketed. Neighborhood groups fear "Wisconsin Avenue-type development" and are particularly opposed to a high-rise office complex proposed for the deserted shopping center across Connecticut Avenue from Chik'n Bucket.
To Chik'n Bucket's customers, the change in ownership seems to symbolize their fears that the neighborhood will change. In affluent and chic Cleveland Park, chicken is serious business. "I feel like a part of my life has been taken away," laments Carl Rowan Jr., son of the columnist. "It's a real Washington tradition and the best fried chicken in town."
As for Rothenberg, well, he's taken his chicken recipe and his big bucks, and he's out looking for new quarters to keep his success story cooking. "I had nothing to lose," he says, "so I tried chicken." And chicken has been very good to him.