30 July 2012

Chicken Shack Founders Share Chain with Kids, Grandkids

Story first reported from Detroit Free Press

Its name, Chicken Shack, isn't glamorous. Its stores aren't flashy. And most customers couldn't describe its method of cooking, based on Broasting, if their next meal depended on it.

But that hasn't stopped legions of fans from turning the company founded by John and Iola Sobeck 56 years ago into an iconic Detroit brand -- an old-school, family-owned company that, this time of year, serves up more than 300 tons of crispy, golden chicken pieces every week.

From a single store the couple built with their own hands in 1956, Chicken Shack has grown to 18 locations, eight of them owned by family members. And over the years, its success has indirectly hatched a small flock of other metro Detroit Broaster-style restaurants founded by ex-employees and relatives.
Both she and John Sobeck, 88, are still involved in day-to-day operations. He keeps tabs on things mostly by phone now. But she continues to go into their Royal Oak store on Woodward Avenue every morning to check the bills, help make the slaw, flour the chicken or whatever else needs doing.

That can be a lot -- especially when graduation parties, picnics and family reunions make June and July "by far" the company's busiest time, said grandson Neil Sobeck, 33, co-owner of the Clawson and Warren stores.

Each of the 18 locations sold an average of 127,680 pieces of chicken per week in the four weeks ending July 7, he said. That's about 18 tons of chicken each, not including specialty pieces such as wing dings and tenders.

Unlike many restaurant chains, the company has no central kitchen or commissary. Every day, each restaurant shreds fresh cabbage for its coleslaw and hand-cuts its own giant spuds for Shack potatoes. The cut-up chicken pieces -- fresh, never frozen -- are delivered daily, too, marinated in house, hand-floured and cooked in small batches throughout the day.

It's a labor-intensive operational method, but it's pretty much the way the Sobecks have done things from the beginning.

The first time John Sobeck tasted Broasted chicken was in 1956, he recalls, only two years after Wisconsin-based Broaster introduced its pressure fryers and line of seasonings.

He said it was the best chicken he had ever tasted.

He and his wife already had an ice cream shop and grill on Woodward Avenue, but the ambitious young World War II vet foresaw a brighter future selling chicken. So they scraped together enough money to buy building materials and a lot on 11 Mile in Royal Oak and went to work.

Sobeck said Iola mixed mortar while he laid blocks. They named the new place Chicken Shack, inspired by the name of a nearby business called Surplus Shack. Their food was an immediate hit.

They started with two Broasters, and had to buy more to keep up with demand.

He started out using Broaster's trademarked marinades, flour and seasonings, but he soon decided to develop his own. He spent two years fine-tuning the recipes, and now, Iola says it’s perfect.

All four of their children grew up working in the restaurants.

The same went for their four grandchildren.

The Sobecks' daughter Michelle McNulty is president of Sobeck Enterprises; daughter and son-in-law Cheryl and Dave Brusen own the Rochester and Clarkston locations; son Mark co-owns Warren and Clawson with his own son Neil Sobeck, and Mark's son Phillip has three stores in St. Clair Shores and Livonia.

Married 65 years and still living in the Berkley home where they raised their family, the senior Sobecks have had offers to buy the company, but they've never seriously considered them, they say. Nor have they wanted to expand dramatically.

Getting too big means giving up something, and they think they have it balanced well, otherwise, what's the point of working if you never have time to spend with your family, says Iola.

But the younger Sobecks may be more expansion-minded, and are considering controlled growth, Neil Sobeck said. More franchises are under consideration. And last month, the company launched a colorful, 28-foot-long Chicken Shack-on-wheels with a walk-in cooler and all the cooking equipment of a traditional store.

Its customers are a cross-section of metro Detroit.

The parade of people at the Woodward store in Royal Oak on July 21 included everyone from SMART bus drivers to construction workers and church officials to backyard party-givers.

Caroline Rooney of Bloomfield Hills, who had ordered a half-pan of ribs and a half-pan of chicken, was hosting a cookout at her home that night, she said, but she wasn't cooking -- "not at 90 degrees today."

The 400-piece order picked up by Deacon Will Robinson of the New Prospect Baptist Church in Detroit was for attendees at a funeral. The church orders at least three to five times a week for all kinds of events, from receptions to baby showers, and always from Chicken Shack. 

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