LINCOLN PARK — Fry the Coop has opened in Lincoln Park, marking its eighth location.
The chain, which specializes in hot chicken sandwiches, opened Oct. 12 at 2404 N. Lincoln Ave. Founder Joe Fontana said the reception from customers has already been very positive, and many people have come in who hadn’t previously tried the restaurant’s hot chicken.
“People have been so nice and welcoming,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for people to get to know us, but so far, we already have tons of regulars, people who are coming in once a week, twice a week.”
Menu items at the Lincoln Park location include five sandwiches, tenders, fries and assorted sides, all priced under $15. Its sandwiches come in six spice levels ranging from country — no heat — to insanity, described as “(R.I.P.).”
While there are other chicken joints in Chicago, Fontana said his sandwiches stand out because he uses a dry rub to coat his chicken and not a sauce. The rub allows him to pack in a lot of spice without sacrificing the flavor of his sandwich, he said.
“Especially with Chicago, a lot of places that say it’s spicy, it’s not actually spicy,” he said. “Or you order [something] hot and it’s really just like not even that spicy. I felt like there a category of spicy food that could be really awesome and was not sauce-driven.”
Fontana didn’t always think he’d end up running a big chicken chain. Growing up in Chicago, he worked in hospitality before moving to southern California to pursue sales, he said.
Feeling stifled in an office job, Fontana went back to culinary school and tried launching a meatball restaurant before getting an offer for a location ideal for fried chicken back in Chicago, he said. He launched Fry the Coop in 2017 and now has locations in Portage Park and West Town, as well as suburban Darien, Oak Lawn, Prospect Heights, Tinley Park and Elmhurst.
The Lincoln Park location is particularly exciting to Fontana because of its proximity to DePaul University, he said.
“There’s something nostalgic about where you go to college and if you have food spots that are part of your college experience,” he said. “We thought it’d be so cool to be next to DePaul and be a part of people’s memories for that college experience.”
In an effort to make the chain feel more local, Fry the Coop launched its first Chicago-inspired sandwich.
The Chicago Hot Chicken sandwich with Marconi Hot Giardiniera quickly established itself as a fan favorite and won a permanent spot on the menu, Fontana said.
When decorating and conceptualizing new Fry the Coop locations, Fontana also works with local historical societies and archivists to collect old photographs of neighborhoods. Designing for Lincoln Park was symbolic for Fontana because it’s where he got his start in the hospitality industry. The shop features photos of an old record shop in the area and famous intersections.
“It’s very cool to put those pictures on the wall, and it’s just fun to see people coming in and looking at the wall saying, ‘Oh my God, I remember that,’ or, ‘Oh, holy cow. There was a, you know, whatever in this place,’” Fontana said.
But the most fun part of Fry the Coop might always be its heat levels, Fontana said. He said he was most impressed by a 10-year-old girl who came into one of his locations, ate a “hot” level sandwich — one most people can’t handle, he said — and walked away with ease.
As for Fontana, he admits his spice tolerance is barely there.
“Funny enough, I didn’t even need any spicy food till I was like 21 years old. Zero,” he said. “[I taste my own menu] in small little increments.”
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