Chicken shops are a place I've felt comfortable in for over 15 years. In the early days, the ritual was precise: storm in the Morley's at Crown Point straight after school with a group of other kids, get the biggest meal I could with the least amount of money, stand by the shop counter while digging into a cheap white plastic bag—already see-through with grease—to find paper sachets, before ripping them open and covering my food with salt and pepper. Then I'd close the box and shake it for an impressively long time, open it again, assemble the various condiments I liked (burger sauce, mayonnaise, barbecue), lather my food with all three, and walk straight out of the shop to the bus stop a few meters away. I did this most days after school, and during sixth form, sometimes on my lunch break.
Chicken shops, those small places with mirrored tiles and typically friendly South Asian men behind the counter, are something of a London staple. We have Morley's, Sam's, and Dixie's, plus the various chicken locations: Chicken Cottage, Chicken Valley, Chicken Palace, Chicken Village, Chicken Hut, and Chicken Castle. Then there are the location-specific chicken shops: Angel Fried Chicken, Hackney Fried Chicken, and Whitechapel Fried Chicken, as well as their accompanying acronyms (AFC, HFC etc.) There are also all the rip-offs. Mowley's and Norley's, I'm looking at you.
Chicken shops are more than a part of London—they are London. Or at least, they're London for the people who never have and never will identify with the glossy new-build flats and overpriced themed cafes that the city seems to be drowning in at the moment. For many born-and-bred Londoners, particularly those of us who are black or brown, chicken shops are more than a place to eat cheap food. Scattered around the city, your local chicken shop symbolises everything from your ends (Morley's in South London, Sam's in North) to the people in your community. The chicken shop is a place many Londoners have very strong feelings about.
According to Lemara, a writer, "you see it everywhere by 4 PM in London—kids fresh from school, in the chicken shop. Older me feels some type of way about it, but I see myself in those kids and remember that after-school congregation fondly. I don't want an artisan sandwich, or to sit down at a gentrified chicken place in Soho and pay a jacked up price for something Bossman has been doing for years. It's not about health or a balanced diet: it's a simple, familiar fix and an easy solution for an empty stomach. I don't want to equate chicken shops to the black barbershop or hair dressers, but there's a strand of similarity. Where else could I go and be cheeky with the proprietor, or be loud and messy? I also think on a deeper level, and akin to the NYC bodega, the chicken shop is a place you can really support immigrant business owners."
For people who don't have safe homes to go home to, Morley's is open until late and it's the only place outside of the home that black inner city kids can actually chill
Similarly, recent graduate and South Londoner Victoria tells me that chicken shops are a staple for the inner city working class.
"After 2010, I saw youth clubs being closed down one by one and so Morley's became the chill spot," she says. "For people who don't have safe homes to go home to, Morley's is open until late and it's the only place outside of the home that black inner city kids can actually chill without the feds turning up thinking there's some kind of illegal activity going on. Working class kids can take up public space there and have fun, and there's a special relationship between young Londoners and the people who work there. Bossman will always hook you up with an extra wing or free drink if he likes you, and they don't pressure you to leave after you've eaten like some bougie restaurants do. Chicken shops are generally seen as this symbol for poverty—while that's not necessarily untrue, it also serves as a space for young people to take their minds off the of the state violence they're subject to and actually connect and build friendships. Plus the chicken is buff. Seeing a Morley's lets me know that I'm home."
Saying all that, the "health question" is something that comes up a lot as I speak to people about chicken shops. Sapphire, an artist from Leeds who moved to London a few years ago, thinks that despite their cultural significance, there is a "sadness" surrounding chicken shops.
"Businesses are being allowed to buy shops in close proximity of secondary schools, and working class kids are gorging on very unhealthy food straight after school," she points out. "Don't get me wrong, I eat it from time to time, but I don't think kids should be eating it every day. I [also] think it's disgraceful that in England, families can still only afford to buy their kids a two-piece chicken meal. Some families literally have no time to go home and cook a healthy cheap meal—there's a lack of accessibility for hot cheap tasty food in London. It's classist."
Despite the nostalgia of those who associate them with a white Britishness chicken shops will never have, traditional fish and chip shops are becoming more and more uncommon on the streets of London. Comparatively, chicken shops are thriving—for the most part. Croydon has seen 20 chicken shops close over the past 3 years, perhaps a consequence of their rapid rise. Despite this, after Elijah Quahsie a.k.a. the Chicken Connoisseur went viral with his Pengest Munch YouTube series late last year, the idea that chicken shops were having a "moment" entered the mainstream cultural consciousness. In the months that followed, chicken shops have received shoutouts from Stormzy via his "Big For Your Boots" video, as well as Sound of 2017 winner RAY BLK, whose song "My Hood" includes the line "meet me at Morley's, best fried chicken is in South."
Bossman will always hook you up with an extra wing or free drink if he likes you
However, few have recognised that chicken shops have been a cultural marker for black and brown kids in the inner city long before white art students began wearing ironic Chicken Cottage t-shirts or you could buy chicken shop prints in Carnaby Street. Stormzy was referencing Morley's in the lyrics of "Wicked Skengman 4" back in 2015, and Tumblr Morley's Culture has a small archive of people from MCs Krept and Konan to Star Wars actor John Boyega shouting out the chicken franchise. Going back further, 2010 saw a song about the joys of Sam's Chicken rack up the YouTube hits, while this October marks the ten year anniversary of the iconic "Junior Spesh," a track from East London crew Red Hot, all about their chicken shop love.
"One thing I'll say is that we've been around for a long time" says Shan Selvendran, the 30-year-old who currently manages the Morley's franchise. He has been at the helm since 2009, seven years after the man who set up the business in 1985—dad Indran—passed away. "A lot of people have been repping it for 20-plus years but the last few years it's gone to the next level. In terms of the escalation, I put it all down to the music thing, and the fact social media is there. You have to remember everyone who used to go there, they're online now. They mention us. People talk about South London, so they gotta talk about us."
This year, Morley's has been at the forefront of capitalising on chicken shops' moment in the sun, selling merchandise online and reaching out to their audience on Twitter and Instagram. The founder of Peckham-based radio station Balamii, James Browning, tells me about plans for a yearly Morley's x Balamii rave, as well as the success of their first collaboration in January: "Chicken shops, they're part of the fabric of South London. We sold 400 t-shirts for the party and people still wanted more."
Selvendran also understands the cultural significance of chicken shops in London and the community they serve.
We live in a world where everything's going automated. But your local chicken shop? It's just not happening
"Everyone loves the Bossman," he tells me. "We live in a world where everything's going automated in some [fast food] places, and it's going to keep going that way. But your local chicken shop? It's just not happening."
When it comes to the health aspect of fast food, Selvendran says that "you'd never catch me saying that Morley's is for every day."
He continues: "You need to eat responsibly, treat yourself sometimes, look after your health. But people always tell me, 'We don't eat it now, but thanks for feeding me back then.' All of us chicken shop owners understand the influence of youngsters, but it's not about taking advantage of them, it's not that at all. At the end of the day, the margins are small nowadays but we try our best to keep things cheap. Here's something I will say: my dad died in 2002, and until 2009, the management was not very good. During that time it was the customers that kept Morley's alive. The stories about people's childhood? 'I only had a pound and the Bossman gave me enough food' I get so many emails. [It's why] I refuse to put anyone's face to Morley's and I won't put my face out there either, because the face should be the people. Talking about it, singing about it, rapping about it, and now you're writing about it. When I drive around South London and I see a Morley's, I get pride because I think that's my Dad. My Dad started this and the people kept it going."
As the gentrification of areas like Dalston, Tottenham, and Brixton drives so many working class kids from the streets, chicken shops hold even more significance as one of the few places that haven't yet been fully colonised by the white art students and middle classes. However over the past year, many a Bossman has used the rising profile of chicken shops to hike up prices. While the low price of chicken shop food has been fundamental in keeping inner city working classes coming back, the new chicken shop clientele can and will pay more.
Chicken shops have long been a symbol of defiance on high streets that are becoming more unrecognisable to the people who live near them. All I can hope is that they don't become another place the black and brown kids who built them up feel unwelcome in.