(Photography by Don Kadair): The Chicken Shack
Loyal customers, dedicated employees, an involved managerial team and, of course, the cake-like battered fried chicken—these are the secret ingredients of the Chicken Shack’s success.
Other establishments might want to take note. After all, the Chicken Shack has been around for 80 years, making it the oldest known continually operating restaurant in Baton Rouge.
“We sell over 800,000 pounds of chicken a year,” says owner Joe Delpit, son of the late Thomas Delpit, who established the first Chicken Shack in the front of his family’s shotgun home on East Boulevard in 1935.
All these years later, with three Baton Rouge locations, an express truck and plans to expand, Delpit says he’s not surprised his family’s restaurant made it to where it is today.
“Actually, it was my dad who first wanted to expand,” he says. “He mentioned it to me, but he died before we could do anything.”
Today Delpit, 75, has fulfilled his father’s wishes and more, as he and his childhood friend and part owner, Henry Baptiste, are making plans to open a New Orleans location and to seek further expansion through franchising.
The Delpit family has operated as many as six Chicken Shack locations, but three still stand today in Baton Rouge: the Acadian location at 413 N. Acadian Thruway, the Mohican location at 3939 Pawtucket St. and the Scotlandville location at 8372 Scotland Ave. near Southern University.
The Acadian restaurant, opened in 1978, is the oldest still in operation, while the newest Chicken Shack in Scotlandville is only a year old. The original on East Boulevard now serves as an administrative office.
“I love the Chicken Shack business,” says Delpit, who started working there at just 5 years old. “It’s my passion.”
When it all began 80 years ago, the Chicken Shack was actually a small sweet shop.
Thomas Delpit originally named it the Suburban Ice Cream Parlor, but two years later in 1937, he dubbed his shop the Chicken Shack and added menu items like red beans and rice, homemade pies, cakes and seafood.
It was his “knuckle-suckin’-good” fried chicken, though, that kept customers coming back for more.
Originally from New Orleans, Thomas Delpit worked in the food industry and developed his own special recipes before moving to Baton Rouge where he tried his hand at pastries, pies and even wedding cakes.
With his background in baked goods, Thomas Delpit created the cake-like batter recipe for the fried chicken for which his restaurant became known. The recipe is kept in a locked safe, he says, and only two people know how to make it: Joe’s wife, Precious, and Baptiste.
“It’s not like all the traditional chicken places that use a dry batter,” Joe Delpit says. “We use a wet batter with the consistency of a cake batter. Nobody makes an identical one.”
Baptiste, owner of the Mohican location, has been working at the Chicken Shack since he was 15 years old. A family friend of the Delpits, he grew up with Joe at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School in Baton Rouge.
The two worked in the kitchen back in 1955, but frying chicken wasn’t their only job. Joe and Baptiste both smiled as they recalled riding their bicycles to deliver meals to customers.
Joe, of course, has worked in the Chicken Shack almost all his life.
“I was 5 when I started toasting bread and then washing dishes,” he says. “As I got older, I got promoted. I started cleaning bathrooms, toilets. Then I got in the kitchen.”
By the time Joe was 18, his father became sick and asked him to take over.
A small collection of memorabilia Joe Delpit keeps from the early days of the Chicken Shack includes a business license dated 1937 and one of the first restaurant menus. Based on the prices displayed, Joe says, the menu had to be from the late 1930s. The fried chicken dinner, with rice and gravy and a choice of vegetable, cost customers just 75 cents.
The Chicken Shack has since come a long way, Joe says, and business is just as good, if not better, today than it was then.
“Sales wise, yes, and ideas and cohesiveness and continuity, I think that has all improved tremendously,” Joe says.
So to what do they attribute the Chicken Shack’s continued success? Baptiste says it’s just a matter of staying involved.
“You can’t turn your business over to the help,” he says. “Be here every day. Be on top of business.”
Joe also credits the loyal customers who still keep coming through the Chicken Shack’s doors. He says about 70% of them are known by their first name. “People love that,” Joe says.
The fried chicken is easily the biggest draw, but for the health conscious, the Chicken Shack offers tasty, healthy plate lunches, which are different every day of the week. Baptiste also touts the fresh vegetables and sides.
“I always say the only thing we get out of the can is ketchup,” he says.
The Chicken Shack is a family business that spans four generations, and Joe quickly admits it would be nothing without his wife, who is an integral part of the business, as his mother once was.
When Joe was elected the first black councilman in Baton Rouge and later a state representative, he says, his wife Precious basically ran the Chicken Shack. Today she is partially retired but still serves as a consultant for the business.
As far as the future of the Chicken Shack, Joe says he looks to his children and grandchildren, most of whom work for the restaurant, as well as a few longtime employees, to eventually take over.
Challenges do come with running a family business, Joe says, but he sees maturity and responsibility starting to set in with his children and grandchildren as they become more involved with the Chicken Shack.
“At any rate, I think we’ll be all right,” he says. “I really do.”
But he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“I’m the coach. I tell them that,” he says.