If Chicago blacks have a favorite chicken spot, it’s probably Harold’s Chicken Shack, which has served the city since the 1950s. Harold’s famous chicken, with its sweet and spicy sauce, is a pleasant reminder of home from family gatherings. , of a black experience destined for them. In an ever-changing city with a history that runs in many directions, Harold’s Chicken has been a constant in black communities.
The art of ordering and eating Haroldo’s Frango can only be passed from one person to another, with whom they choose to share this delicacy. You must know your order before going to the cashier.
“If you’re not from here, you need to learn how to do this. You have to,” says Larry Legend, local expert on Harold’s Chicken, a comedian who has written about his favorite Harold’s locations for Chicago magazine in 2019.
The cashier doesn’t have time for you to think about your order. Customers need to be quick and direct, clear and specific. Don’t forget the mild sauce. The most popular chicken joints in Chicago have a mild sauce, but the recipe for each is virtually unknown. The mild sauce is sweet and spicy, and some say it’s a combination of barbecue sauce, hot sauce, and ketchup. Each mild sauce found in town is different, meant to accompany its own chicken, legend has it, a complement to any herbs and spices used to coat the chicken. You can get it on the side, but most Chicagoans order it on the chicken.
“Even if they fry the chicken to perfection, you’re always going to ask them to fry it hard, and you have to put the sauce on the chicken. So if I see someone without sauce on their chicken, I question them why you’re taking away the restaurant experience. Everything about it has to do with the sauce on the chicken. The chicken itself is not the attraction. But the sauce with the chicken combo is made in heaven,” Legend said.
Harold Pierce started his business with just $800 and a single fryer. Today, Pierce and his juicy, crispy fried chicken served with his signature mild sauce are Chicago institutions — pillars of the local black community, as essential as churches and corner stores. Pierce died in 1988, but sold the business to family and friends who continued the legacy, including his second wife Willa, who died in 2003, and later his son JR and daughter Kristen, who would eventually become CEO. Representatives for Harold’s did not respond to multiple requests to participate in this story.
Like many black Chicagoans of his day, Pierce moved to Chicago in search of a better life and opportunity than those available in the Jim Crow South. During the Great Migration, he moved from Alabama to Chicago’s Black Belt.
Pierce started out making a living as a driver and ended up running a restaurant called H&H with his first wife Hilda. He saved enough money to start his own business at age 33: a chicken coop.
Pierce’s story is of unique importance to black Chicagoans, says Arionne Nettles, a veteran Chicago journalist who is following the impact and history black Chicagoans have had on pop culture while researching her next film. book, We are Culture. She is also a professor on the subject at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“The familiar story of black entrepreneurship and creating something new in this place full of opportunity is such a dark Chicago story,” says Nettles. “Everything at Harold’s is black and everything at Harold’s is really Chicago. It’s like the best of both worlds for someone who has that specific identity.”
Pierce’s first location opened at 1235 E. 47th Street. At the height of its expansion in 2006, Harold’s Chicken Shack has blossomed into more than 60 franchises, with locations as far from Chicago as Atlanta; the company’s website lists nearly 40 in operation today.
Per Jason Goff, host of NBC Sports Chicago’s pre- and post-game coverage of the Bulls, Harold’s reminds him of visits to his grandmother’s house. Although his grandmother no longer lives in the house he visited as a child, he can vividly remember the sights and sounds of eating the famous fried chicken with his family.
“Every time I went to my grandmother’s house, I went to Harold’s on 87th Street and Dan Ryan,” says Goff. “It was my first real foray into American home cooking… Everyone has their soul food recipes, right? … We don’t eat soul food like traditional American descendants of slavery, like greens and some of the others [foods] that I became more aware as I got older. But what I had was my little piece of not just the Black experience, but the Chicago Black experience: taking my ass to Harold’s on 87th Street and learning to order. … There was an art to it, and I felt connected in a way I hadn’t felt before.”
To the South Siders, Harold’s chicken and its accompanying mild sauce are sacred, and when rapper Wale appeared to be insulting the beloved fried chicken in his 2011 single “That Way,” which features Rick Ross and the R&B singer of Chicago Jeremih, Chicagoans let him hear. booing him at a show at the Alhambra Palace.
“I think that’s why we love [Harold’s] so much,” says the legend. “It was just something in our neighborhoods. You know, Chicago is a city that likes to stand up for what we’ve come up with or what we’ve brought into the culture and I feel like that’s a really big thing. It relates to people’s lives. And it brings back those memories of going to the club, or even going to house parties or juke parties, or a long day after school. You might remember Harold’s just thinking about the smell of the sauce.
When outsiders think of Chicago food, they think of deep-dish pizza, Italian steak, and Chicago-style hot dogs. But for the Black South Siders, Harold’s is on that level, and maybe even higher.
“Everyone wants to come here and talk about deep pizza and Italian meat. Okay, we eat this once in a while. But we eat square pizza and we eat Harold’s chicken, sometimes several times a week.” Jay Westbrookthe local brewery known on social media as Black Beer Baron.
Westbrook paid tribute to Pierce and other Black Chicago greats by creating their popular Haymarket and Sam Ross collaboration beer, Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale. “I could even argue that Harold Pierce is as relevant to Chicago’s interests as [first Black mayor] Harold Washington and [White Sox Hall of Famer] Harold Baines. And in the annals of fast food, he is as relevant as Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas.”
Westbrook is not alone in this feeling. In a 1985 letter to the editor published by Chicago defender, a reader recalled a Freedom Walk led by Dick Gregory in 1969 that ended at Harold’s Chicken Shack at 64th and Cottage Grove, and wrote that Pierce is the “third Harold from Chicago, who should be up there with Harold Baines and Harold Washington.” wherever Chicagoans gather to sing: ‘Harold! Harold!’”
In a 1985 interview with the Defender Pierce said, “Yes, we’re in the bad neighborhoods, but they say the poor will always be with you… So I’m going to stay with the poor.” And stick with it they did.
A signature of some of the original Harold’s Chicken Shack locations is a photo of its late founder. In the picture, Pierce is smiling at the business he created so many years ago, which has grown into a culture, a community. Harold’s represents the Black Chicago experience – needing to move, needing to reinvent, discard and save, and ultimately create. Harold’s is not just emblematic of Chicago’s black residents, but a piece of them. That’s why you have that feeling and that memory in each of your stories. Because it’s a part of their lives.