(Top photo: Steven Depolo, via)
"Chicken shop" is a funny colloquialism for the thousands of fast food places that litter Britain's high streets. It's completely accurate, of course, but there's something odd about the message it conveys: it makes it sound like the food you're buying isn't ready to eat. To many, that holds true: the fare sold in these shops isn't ready to eat under any circumstances. To many others, though, it's a childhood staple, a necessary night out pitstop.
The stores themselves have remained the same for years: they all steal each other's logos and branding, and they are, by and large, still unbelievably cheap. Chips and wings – a filling meal – comes to no more than £1.50 in some places. Dimensionally they're all basically the same, too, with a bar dividing a single room; tiles, mirrors and sometimes seating on one side, giant metal glass-fronted cases filled with chicken and ribs on the other.
But in 2017, the way chicken shops are viewed is changing.
Like betting shops and charity shops, chicken shops occupy both a specific place on the high street and in the collective consciousness. Unlike the first two, in the age of the meme, chicken shops have been co-opted – their subtleties overblown and turned into gags. What was a staple of a night out, or of a kid's after school ritual, is now becoming the latest British institution to receive the ironic treatment.
A few years ago, Chicken Cottage – one of the biggest chicken shop franchises in the UK – was immortalised in a T-shirt worn by middle class trendies. It was the mirrored, interlinked Cs of the Chanel logo, this time standing for "Chicken" and "Cottage" – the tee being the first real sign that arty types who'd moved to the deprived areas chicken shops tend to serve had started to show their appreciation, via merchandising marketed to and bought mostly by other middle class arty types.
What followed was a greater social media presence from many of the bigger brands, and more engagement with consumers, allowing those in management roles to become better aware of how the shops were being perceived.
One chicken shop company that seems to have really capitalised on this is Morley's, a chain exclusive to south London. They've gone on the social media offensive, gauging interest in T-shirts, setting up events with local trendy internet radio station Balamii and going as far as hosting a "pop-up" Valentine's Day special restaurant, where they served southern specialities like chicken and waffles.
It's clever stuff. The clientele in some cases – particularly around Peckham, New Cross and Elephant & Castle – has changed. As social housing is demolished to make way for luxury flats, and the rents of surrounding properties are raised, families are being forced out of the areas they've lived in their entire lives, and the people replacing them tend to be younger and more affluent – young professional implants from the Home Counties who see chicken shops as quaint emblems of their new lives in the big city.
Owners have discerned that guffawing art students are enamoured with the notion of the chicken shop – the concept of it, rather than the reality. So they're moving to exploit exactly that. I've personally already seen price hikes in certain places, and seen others complaining online (and at least one person claiming owners are charging hipsters more than school kids), though this could be to do with Brexit or adjusting prices for inflation – as one Morleys branch told me it was on a drunken Friday night.
Regular customers are noticing a sea change. A popular tweet last week pointed out that many chicken shops are starting to look like VICE articles, which – to be fair – is absolutely true. Students and media workers have decided chicken shops are now worth their time, if as much for the whimsy as the cosy interiors and the low, low prices. It's easy to draw parallels here with the "cheeky Nando's" meme: a normal thing utilised by normal people, the normalcy of which is seen as a curiosity to outsiders.
An episode of 'The Pengest Munch'
And so the chicken shop becomes a cultural icon that doesn't really have a personality, but rather has had personality thrust upon it. "Chicken Shop Date", the T-shirts made by this man and numerous articles about the (to be fair, quite interesting) work of this man are all good examples of the chicken shop's elevation in popular culture.
But one thing that's spurred on this change more than ever is YouTube show The Pengest Munch, a wry review series hosted by "The Chicken Connoisseur", which comes from a knowing place of affection for these ostensibly crap eateries.
Twenty-three-year-old Elijah Quashie has taken to the streets, dressed as a schoolboy, to evaluate the merits of these chicken shops for his YouTube channel. It's a fun attempt to ward people off bad wings and fillet burgers, to tell them whether the two-for-two deal is really worth it. The show was a nudge and a wink to those who grew up wondering if the chicken shops near north London's schools were any different to the ones in south
Now, though, through the industrial machine of content aggregation and social media promotion, it's become a point of fun for people who never had those experiences in their youth, but like what they see and want to get involved. Inadvertently, the reviews may be causing a price hike themselves, with enterprising owners riding their 15 minutes.
Pushing all this to its ultimate conclusion is the above video uploaded by Goldsmiths University London – a university with a reputation for pretentiousness, and students using its surroundings as fodder for their art and sociological study – in which a lecturer discusses his upcoming "sensory ethnography" of chicken shop culture. He opens his bit with "Lots of people are revolted by chicken shops."
Quite who the type of person revolted by chicken and chips is, I will leave you to deduce. But when a moustachioed sociology lecturer chooses to pay such close attention to something that's been a staple of London's streets for decades, it starts to become clear that we're entering a bold new era of the chicken shop.
So what's next? Well, the fetishisation of these places will no doubt continue unabated, making them merely the latest addition to the long conveyor belt of ubiquitous and relatively uninteresting things that can't quite be left alone by London's creative class. Tracksuits, fried chicken, grime music, dingy locals' pubs that people want to drink in because they're more "real" than Wetherspoons – it's all there for the plunder.
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