From outside the building with the dimly lit facade, the long lines of people look like human caterpillars slinking their way toward the counter, people of all sizes shuffling slowly forward, often waiting as long as 30 minutes for service on this relatively cool, weekday summer night.
There are bulky armed construction workers with helmets on their heads, wiry brown bodies covered only by jogging clothes, mothers with children at their sides or in their arms and a few young men in open-collared dress shirts who talk of driving all the way from Northwest to get here.
For the past few weeks, this new fast-food restaurant on Minnesota Avenue NE, Chicken George, has been doing a bustling business, playing to the palates of a city of Southern roots with an array of spicy chicken, collard greens, homemade biscuits and sweet potato pie. And a name borrowed in timely fashion from one of the heroes of Alex Haley's family saga.
Yet the success of this black-owned franchise from Baltimore is also the latest indication that Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, is also a fried chicken capital -- where the $25 million in annual chicken sales run 22 percent above the national average. Moreoever, fried chicken outlets provide some of the few in-town jobs for black youths who are otherwise chronically unemployed.
Most of the $25 million in chicken sold in Washington last year was for fast-food and sit-down restaurants, according to the National Restaurant Association. Statistics from the National Broiler Council, a trade association, indicate that Washington's sales are equaled only by Norfolk, where most of the chicken sold goes to naval installations, not fast-food outlets.
In some parts of the District, especially in far Southeast and Northeast, it is almost impossible to make it down a mile or so of any major commercial street without encountering some kind of chicken outlet. Along Benning Road, for example, between Minnesota Avenue and Bladensburg Road, there are nearly a dozen chicken outlets either on the street or within a few blocks walk.
Each one boasts its special drawing cards -- Holly Farms with its taters and fried chicken livers touted in a motto at the Martin Luther King Avenue store -- "Everything you want and a little bit more"; Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken -- from New Orleans, no less -- with mild or spicy flavoring and served with french fries, corn-on-the-cob or creole rice pudding; Kentucky Fried, the colonel's special blend of seasonings in regular or extra crispy crust; Bojangles, with cayenne pepper under the crust and biscuits on the side.
"Washington is an extremely good chicken market," said William Roenigk, director of economic research for the National Broiler Council here. "It's just that chicken is an American classic, whether fried, barbequed or broiled."
Indeed, in Washington fast-food chicken franchises outnumber quickie burger hamlets by almost 2 to 1 -- a disparity made even more stark by the fact that two of the major hamburger chains in the city, Gino's and Roy Rogers, also specialize in chicken.
Why so much chicken in Washington?
Drew Stasio, vice president for Church's Fried Chicken, which has seven of its 12 area outlets in Washington, said his company had not noticed a significant relationship between ethnic background and sales.
"We're building stores all over the market," Stasio said. "We do as well in Alexandria as we do in Washington."
But Ted Holmes, founder of the newly arrived Chicken George, is betting heavily that the minority market in Washington will help him rake in more than $100 million within the next two years. So far, nine more Chicken George outlets are planned for the Washington area, most in the city, where the population is 70 percent black, he said.
"Our research has shown that we should zero in on the minority market because in some areas, like Washington, blacks consume up to 50 percent more chicken than whites," Holmes said. "Whites like our product, too, don't get me wrong. But they only eat it one time a week when blacks eat it four times a week."
Holmes said that Chicken George, based in Baltimore and one of the few black-owned chains in the country, has data indicating that its average customer is about 34 years old, married and earns between $18,000 to $24,000 a year -- middle class by Washington standards.
The success of the fried chicken outlets here comes at a time when fast-food restaurants throughout the country are not only dressing up their advertising and aiming much of it at middle-income, blue-and white-collar families, but also trying to diversify their menus to break the burger doldrums. In some cases that means salad bars or pizza, in others, new remedies for chicken fever.
McDonald's and Burger King have added chicken sandwiches to their offerings, and McDonald's has gone a step further with the development of McNuggets, fried chicken nuggets, already on sale in some parts of the country and due to hit the Washington area soon. Arthur Treacher's Fish & Chips also sells batter-fried boneless chicken.
With industry figures showing that blacks consume 38 percent of the chicken nationally, some fast-food companies have toyed with the idea of marketing a chicken just for blacks, according to industry sources, but so far Chicken George has come closest to it.
"I think we're the only ones out there with a real feel for minority marketing," said Holmes of Chicken George, who came up with the name after watching Ben Vereen play the character in the televised version of Alex Haley's Roots. "I'd hate to give out any real insights," he added cautiously. "Then the big guys might wipe us out of the ballpark."
Among the marketing concepts employed by Chicken George are bringing black entertainers such as the singing duo Peaches and Herb into its stores and preparing its food with less salt to reduce the risk of hypertension, from which blacks suffer in disproportionate numbers.
Chicken mania didn't start with Chicken George. For years, other chicken establishments have come into black neighborhoods, often making special efforts to employ residents who live near the stores as managers.
Most of the fast-food chicken outlets in Washington have opened during the past five to 10 years, and that has meant low wages but a relatively plentiful and growing number of jobs for many unskilled Washington youth -- those who can escape the 50 percent unemployment levels -- as batterers, clerks, cooks and even clean-up crew members.
Across the street from Spingarn High on Benning Road in Washington, black youths nattily dressed in Popeye Fried Chicken uniforms scurry about behind the counter, punching in on computer-programmed cash registers while deftly packing boxes and bags.
The outlet is one of the busiest in the Popeye chain, profiting from its prime location near a large complex of schools and on a major roadway.
Before Popeye's opened there, a Hardee's burger shop occupied the spot. In spite of the location, Hardee's went out of business.
"It could have been that they didn't have the right product," said William Hamilton, area supervisor for Popeye's, which has five stores here and is planning to expand to 20 throughout the area.
The success of fast-food chicken outlets has been a two-way street. "We are certainly grateful to the city of Washington for what they have done for us," said Homer Brookshire, vice president of Holly Farms Fried Chicken, which has 11 stores in the city. "The Washington market is one of our better markets. It's an excellent place to be and we plan to be here for a long time."
The advent of so many different chicken establishments with each boasting that their secret method of preparation is the best has inevitably led to feisty oneupmanship and a chicken war of sorts, although industry sources agree that there is more than enough business to go around.
"Now I've tasted what they consider 'spicy' chicken," said Popeye's Bill Hamilton. "They" in this instance is Chicken George, which like Popeye's offers either mild or spicy crust. "Let me just say that that theirs is pressure cooked and ours is open fried, which makes ours crispier and with more flavor."
"I can't get into what our research says," says Brookshire of Holly Farms. "But basically it shows that Holly Farms has a decided advantage because it is owned by the finest name in chicken. Our customers come to us because of the freshness of our product, not because of side orders."
Then there are other drawing cards. "Our surveys show we use a larger chicken than the others," said Stasio of Church's. "Yet," he quickly added, "our prices are the cheapest in town."