Pandemic projects, they’re all the rage. Some people built man caves and she sheds. Some planted gardens and canned the living daylights out of their harvests. Some took up weaving, pottery or stone carving.
And some, like local restaurateurs Jesson Gil and Meherwan Irani, decided to create new eateries. One is a resurrection, one a new invention, but both are evidence that even under the most challenging circumstances, restaurant owners gotta restaurant.
King Daddy’s Chicken
To say that people were disappointed when Gil and his wife, Cristina, closed the beloved King Daddy’s Chicken and Waffle would be an understatement. The couple, who had purchased the Early Girl Eatery in March 2018 from Early Girl and King Daddy’s founders Julie and John Stehling, bought King Daddy’s in September 2018, then promptly shuttered it.
“Right after we bought King Daddy’s and it came out we were turning it into our second Early Girl, I had a lady show up and scream at me for 15 minutes,” recalls Jesson Gil. “I have been in the restaurant business for 32 years, through many openings and closings, but I had never had anyone crying in the dining room.”
It wasn’t that the Gils were giving Asheville the bird or disrespecting the concept the Stehlings had birthed. When they purchased Early Girl from the Stehlings, Jesson Gil, who had operated extremely successful franchises of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers in Texas before relocating to Western North Carolina, was locked into a noncompete agreement with Raising Cane’s that prohibited him from buying King Daddy’s. That agreement expired in 2019.
Soon after their Early Girl acquisition, the Gils decided to open a second location, but no likely properties materialized until Jesson and his son walked into King Daddy’s in West Asheville for lunch one day. “It was the perfect place for another Early Girl,” says Jesson. “I contacted the broker, found out it was still for sale, made an offer and bought it.”
The King Daddy’s story could have ended there, but Jesson says he and Cristina always intended to revive the concept, even as they opened a third Early Girl in North Asheville in 2019. “I was in the chicken business for a decade,” he says. “I knew we’d bring King Daddy’s back to life one day.”
With the dine-in changes wrought by COVID, the Gils decided to convert the former bar side of Early Girl North to a takeaway shop for King Daddy’s. They have been testing recipes for a planned relaunch of King Daddy’s all along — including some for the fried chicken and waffles that use an heirloom cornmeal milled by Farm & Sparrow that Jesson says he’s very excited about. But preparations for the reboot were still developing when the news broke prematurely.
“I was sitting in my PJs one Monday morning working on the website and decided to go on the existing Facebook page and make some updates,” Jesson says sheepishly. “I didn’t know those updates would go out to all the Facebook followers. We immediately got reactions from people. Cristina was so mad at me!”
The upside of Jesson’s “oops” is that it imposed a deadline for the debut — Thursday, Oct. 22, for takeout and delivery with dine-in following as soon as it’s feasible. Having already experienced the passion of King Daddy’s devotees, Gil expects equally vocal feedback when diners discover that, other than wings, the chicken will be boneless.
“I love bone-in chicken as much as anybody, but I don’t want to invest in the kitchen equipment frying bone-in chicken requires until we see how the new King Daddy’s does,” Jesson explains. “We need to win over the crying lady first.”
Check out King Daddy’s menu, hours and delivery range at avl.mx/8ed.
BC-19, Chai Pani Restaurant Group owner Meherwan Irani made a deal with Dewey Property Advisors founder Eddie Dewey to lease the space in the Page Avenue corner of the Grove Arcade that was vacated in July 2019 by True Confections. “Eddie wanted to make that end of the arcade more vibrant and, simultaneously, we needed to do something about the long waits for a table at Chai Pani,” Irani explains. “We thought we’d put a little Chai Pani in there — Chotta Chai Pani. Then came COVID, and wait times were no longer a problem. It was really hard at that point to look ahead.”
That didn’t stop him from thinking about how post-COVID restaurants might look: smaller with lower overhead, lower costs, a smaller staff and concepts that could function as takeout or to enjoy outdoors or in an open space like a food hall.
Irani was also thinking that when it came to food, people would want something familiar, approachable, affordable, simple and comforting. “I’m sitting in my house thinking what this could be and how I could contribute, and Molly [his wife] walks in the door with a rotisserie chicken from the grocery. I said, ‘This is it!’” he says.
One of the first home-cooked meals Irani experienced when he first moved to the United States from India at the age of 20, he adds, was classic roasted chicken. “It represents everything I love about American comfort food. I knew that was what I had to do.”
And thus was hatched Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken (“Nani” is Hindi for maternal grandmother). Acknowledging that conventional grocery store rotisserie chicken could use some improvement, Irani says Nani’s will put its own spin on it. That includes sourcing from Joyce Farms in Winston-Salem, a leader in the regenerative agriculture movement; installing a deluxe Alto-Shaam rotisserie oven; and bringing chef Nick Barr over from Buxton Hall BBQ to run the kitchen.
Irani also plans to simplify the process for preparing the chickens. “Things that should never be put on a chicken are used by grocery stores so the chickens can sit under a heat lamp for eight hours,” he says. Nani’s chickens will be brined then seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, lemon zest and rosemary.
The piece de resistance will be the drippings, “the best part of the chicken,” Irani states. “We’ll use all that good stuff to create au jus for the side — honey bourbon, Korean chili, mustard molasses. And we’ll cook the potatoes under the chickens to absorb the drippings.”
Sides will also be classic American comfort foods — scalloped potatoes, corn pudding, broccoli casserole — to be ordered with a quarter or half chicken or in larger portions with a whole chicken for family dinner.
“We want to make crave-worthy rotisserie chicken so good you’ll lose your mind over it. And deliver some comfort for these times when we all crave that as well,” Irani says.
Nani’s Rotisserie Chicken is slated to open this month. For updates, follow on Instagram and check the website at avl.mx/prv4.
CORRECTION: The article was updated on 10/13 to reflect a change in King Daddy’s planned opening date.