Thursday, March 6, 2008

How Chicken Unlimited Became Limited

Old Chicken Unlimited at 2341 N Narragansett opened around 1971

The "cocktails" used to be a rotating chicken emblem. Sign is virtually unchanged in form.

1965 Ad
1968 Ad

1971 Ad

A friend from work, who has taken a particular interest in calling me just to wake me up at 7:30 in the morning, is going nuts because the latest Thai place we have been frequenting lately has raised their prices yet again. She's a self-described "budget" person which is just a fancy way of saying she's cheap and doesn't like shelving out more than she has to for food she considers as....well....cheap. I guess now that Cook County feels the need to gouge us by increasing the sales tax yet again, eating out is on a major rise. Does it matter? I used love to eating at restaurants like the next person when I had more disposable income. I have got less now with my car and school and so much other things I need that is more of a priority and most chain places I used to love eating at seem to be going downhill almost as fast as the prices keep rising. Restaurants named after days like Ruby Tuesday and TGIFridays used to be some of my favorite places. Now they are bland offerings carelessly tossing together ingredients and changing menus constantly who seem to partake in alienating their customers very nicely versus pleasing us and keeping us fed happy. Why eat something with no taste when I can take my forty bucks and buy groceries that would make what they serve with ten times more flavor or go to an old school Italian place with good homemade food or a hole in the wall Chinese place with hefty portions and excellent peach daiquiris. I told my co-worker/friend about this place my partner loves located at 2341 N Narragansett Ave called Golden Crown. It has been around since at least the 80s and despite rising food prices always seems to be pretty reasonable for their hefty portion size. Plus, fruit cocktails like that awesome daiquiri are only $4.25.

I had a big debate about what the building structure used to be. At first I thought it sort of resembled Outback Steakhouse, but thought the location was strange as it is down the street from the old Brickyard Mall. I figured if Outback ever came around those parts they would have wanted to be much closer to the mall so I nixed that idea. Next I thought for sure that the building very much resembled Baker's Square's prototype which is usually good about having low-key locations in the middle of not much else (IE: One located on Harlem and Belmont, another at Western and Toughy). If you enter inside the restaurant, the vestibule area shows some very ancient wallpaper that looks like it has been visiting the restaurant since the beginning of time. My uncle had wallpaper like that, back in the 70s and 80s and even then it looked at least forty years old. Also, the worn, orange booths that are held together by masking tape definitely look like they have been around since the late 60s or early 70s. It is quite apparent that the Chinese place can afford the cheap prices by not updating the looks of their restaurant. I decided that on the inside, between the crowded patrons it just looked too small to be an old Baker's Square. Finally, after doing some newspaper archive research I found an ad for Chicken Unlimited which solved the mystery to me. Except, I had a new question, what the heck was Chicken Unlimited?

I found some answers but little odes to its history. It was a chicken (No kidding!) fast food chain based out of our lovely Hinsdale, Illinois which I presume came about as a response to Harlan Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Back in the 60s there were many chains trying to compete with the old KFC. There was Sisters Chicken, owned by Wendy's, which my parents remembered from living in Ohio, Lee's Famous Recipes started by Col. Sanders' nephew which is still around albeit very marginally, Chicken Delight, another started in Illinois chain, Chicken in the Rough which featured a chicken holding a golf club (But chickens don't have arms! Ah, lad, but they do!) and so many others long dead. A few like Popeyes (They seem to be popping up everywhere), Boston Market and Churchs survive even though the last two are barely hanging in there. Chicken Unlimited was around at least as far back as 1965 (when ads in the paper first pop up) and may have been around back in the 50s although that isn't confirmed. The chain expanded to other states like New York, New Jersey and Florida but started experiencing problems in the mid-70s over defaulted mortgages, un-collected fees from franchises and un-profitable locations that shuttered. They filed for Chapter 11 in 1976 and were gone from the Chicago-land area by the late 70s.

However, the company had a hero in the form of a man named Lawrence Zalusky who had worked for Midas and Alberto-Culver. According to a 1977 Tribune article he had heard of the troubles of Chicken Unlimited through a friend, did research on it, quit his job to take on running Chicken Unlimited and led the company out of bankruptcy. As late as 1982 there were still locations in Florida, the Bahamas and Trinidad. Interesting tidbit about the Bahamas version can be found on the net. It looks like the ones in Trinidad may still exist based on this article. The Florida locations seem to, like the Chicago locations, be history.

Enjoy looking at all the locations and gazing ever so lovingly at the coupon deals. The location that was once at 3234 N Irving Park is now a Golden Nugget I used to frequent like crazy. I also noticed that at different times there were two locations on Dempster Street in Skokie, one was 3536 W Dempster now a Fanny May and the other was 4039 Dempster now a florist shop. I travel on Dempster from time to time so one of these days I will have to go down and snap pictures. If anyone knows the story behind this or has any fond memories of this long gone chain, please feel free to email me or drop me a hello in the comments section. Feel free to click on each image for a larger look.

32 comments:

Dave said...

I remember the Chicken Unlimited TV ads and one restaurant in Mt Prospect, but it wasn't the Euclid Av (near Randhurst)address. It was on Golf Rd near Busse, and must have opened after 1971, but it looked exactly like the one in your last ad. I think we ate chicken from there once and didn't think it was nearly as good as Brown's, which we used to love. This was before their "& Pasta" days, and before they served Italian Beef, hot dogs and all the great trademark Chicago "stuff". I've noticed in recent years Brown's has felt the need to put signs on their stores that say "The Chicago Way". Until recent years no one ever said that, they just served it up every day.

Didn't you post about a broasted chicken place a few months back? Now I'm hungry again.

Didi said...

Yes, I did. I do these posts especially for you, Dave, precisely because you said you liked them and it makes you hungry. LOL. The one from a few months back was just a photo I found at the library. It was a non-chain, mom and pop type place that I couldn't find any info on.

I suspect that some of these restaurants that advertised in the newspaper didn't always have all locations printed. My hubby says he remembers one he swears up and down his parents used to go to on Madison in Chicago that I can't find any info on. Either he's remembering it wrong or like you is remebering a location that is not disclosed. Like you, his parents did not think it was anything special. It was just a quick, cheap place to pick up food for the family, I guess.

As for Brown's, I guess the Pasta addition is supposed to be an improvement. I think I can explain the lame "Chicago way" saying since Brown's is owned by the same guy who owns Portillo's (Which is actually very good with the beef, hot dogs and sausages). However, I don't think Brown's is that much a step above either. I went there once or twice as a kid with my parents and no one thought it was memorable, not even my mom who is a self proclaimed chicken guru. I hadn't been there in years when hubby saw a coupon in the paper about a year or so ago and we went and quickly regretted the experience. The oil made the chicken taste so awful that the lingering odor lasted even after the brushing of teeth several times. Haven't wanted to go back since. It might have just been that location and not a chain wise thing, but remembering it just gives me the "Eeewww!" factor.

And if you think this makes you hungry, stay tuned I will have more for you to savor over tomorrow.

Dave said...

Didi-

I should have mentioned that Brown's did seem to be much better years ago. The last few times I ate there (some time back) it wasn't as good as I remembered.

I love Portillo's, and try to eat at one of 'em at least once whenever I'm in the area, which has been frequent lately. Is it ever gonna stop snowing up there?

BTW, the one on Dempster near Waukegan has a fantastic 1930's porcelain A&P sign among the usual other cool Portillo's decor. Guess folks like us notice that stuff, right?

Didi said...

I so have to get my butt up to Dempster and Waukeegan to check that out. Thanks, Dave! And, yes, retail-philes like us are the only ones who notice this stuff.

I think Portillos has different themes in different locations. I went to the one downtown which seemed different decor-wise from the next one I went to out in Northlake or Melrose Park on North Ave. That one had a 30s Al Capone theme on the inside.

With owners like the Portillos, I don't know why Brown's suffers in quality. Makes no sense. Browns suffered a really bad rap years ago after those murders in Palatine, largely because I think they went unsolved for so long. I think the Portillos are trying to put them back on the map as they do more ads and open up new locations as the one I went to was a new location. Just wish the quality didn't still suffer.

No, it will never stop snowing. Grrr! It started again yesterday. Luckily none of it stuck. I will be going to NYC in a couple of weeks and will be hoping to get away from this. But, hey, I shouldn't complain. Cleveland just got hit with a major snowstorm. The first bad one in a very long time supposedly. My poor cousin must be sitting at home crying or trying to dig himself out only to go around the block.

Dave said...

I was at the Northlake one again recently (closest to O'Hare, I think!). You're right, it's a big-time Chicago 30's gangster theme. Giordano's also does a very nice job with Chicago history on their walls.

Didi said...

Oh, I LOVE Giordano's! I feel so guilty because I have not been there in a few years. A lot of local chains take pride in their history.

They have other themes for other Portillos locations too. Just do not recall what they are. My friend showed me how great it was some years back. Portillo's patriarch, Frank's dad, died not long ago. I remember reading his obit, apparently they lived in Cabrini Green for a while falling on hard times before he and his family went on to be successful. Remarkable story.

Anonymous said...

There was a Chicken Unlimited at about Pratt and Ridge Blvd. in Chicago in the late 1970s. I believe it is now a convenience store.

Also, a WLS Radio retrospective from 1999 included an original Chicken Unlimited radio spot from the early 1970s.

Neat stuff...thanks for posting this!

Didi said...

For a long time I actually lived not too far from Pratt and Ridge. I know that the old Dominick's was a Kroger in the 70s and there was a JJ Peppers right on the corner of Pratt and Damen and I was told years ago that behind the old JJ's was a gas station at one time. So where was the Chicken Unlimited? I just cannot picture where that was.

It's my pleasure to post such ads and I have much more restaurant chains stock piled for the future.

Anonymous said...

As a kid, (around 1970?) I remember a chicken unlimited at 67th & Pulaski right on the NE corner in Chicago. If you go to google streeview and look at it, the building entrance (on Pulaski) looks exactly like your picture of 2341 N Narragansett.

Didi said...

Thanks for giving me that info, Anonynous. I have seen a few more buoldings shaped like that too on the north side and will try to gather as many as I can and post them on here sometime in the future.

Chris D. said...

Hi Didi - Great post about Chicken Unlimited!

I can only specifically remember 2 locations:

The first one (that was already mentioned) was on Ridge & Pratt. The convenience store that is (or was) JJ Peppers was the Chicken Unlimited...same building.

The other one I remember was on Lawrence & Paulina...now Byron's Hot Dog's. I'm not sure if Byron's put up a new building or if it was just remodeled.

Oh, and regarding the Portillo's/Brown's connection, I think it's 2 different Portillo brothers that own each chain. As an aside, I had some Portillo's Italain beef just today and it was awesome. They really do make an excellent beef sandwich!

Didi said...

Chris, I haven't been to Ridge and Pratt in a while, I know the Dominick's closed up shop, but is the JJ Peppers not there anymore? Now that I think about the prototype for Chicken unlimited, it is the same building because from the outside I believe the convenience store altered nothing. Thanks for clearing that up.

Portillos also makes great polishes. When my in-laws were in town last month, that's all they wanted was a polish from Portillos. They went there practically evetryday for a week!

Anonymous said...

Today I was with my father and decided to Google his name. I couldn't believe my eyes when your Chicken Unlimited blog appeared. My father Lawrence is the person you refer to as the hero of Chicken Unlimited. He's had an illustrious career with some great Chicago based businesses.
A few things I recall:
The company had approximately 100 locations remaining by 1977. This was down from the peak of close to 300 stores.
The founders of Chicken Unlimited were pioneers in fast food franchising. Unfortunately they did not understand what they had. They believed they had developed a way to grow their construction business on a national level. As builders they hit the jackpot. Chicken Unlimited began franchising around the same time as KFC. The franchisees recognized the opportunity to own and operate their own business. This was an innovative concept back then. The selection of inferior/cheaper locations caused most of the later problems. A company emerging from Chapter 11 was extremely rare in the 70's. The financial restructuring of CU was a significant accomplishment early in my dad's career. The company shortly began diversifying through acquisitions. Years later the surviving franchisees became independent. I’m guessing that a few scattered Chicken Unlimited restaurants probably exist today. This early history is nostalgic to those of us who remember.
The photos and ads are great to see. Excellent sleuthing.

Locations I remember:
127 & Crawford in Alsip
111th & Michigan Ave
31st & Halsted, Chicago
Golf Rd and Dundee Rd. in Arlington Heights
Dempster St., Skokie
Midlothian, Dolton,
Fullerton Ave, S.Blue Island Ave., Western Ave, 67th and Pulaski in Chicago.
New Hyde Park, NY
Nanuet, NY
Newburgh, NJ
Florida (many),
Nassau, Bahamas, Trinidad & Tobago

Didi said...

Thank you so much, Anonymous for those wonderful and informative comments. Re-reading what I had written about Lawrence, it didn;t dawn on me that leading a company out of bankurpcy during the 70s economic crisis was a pretty remarkable thing. Indeed it was. Based on the articles I have read it sounds as though your father really pushed hard to save the chain so that they could be formidable competition.

Restaurants such as these have an interesting history to me, especially they obscure ones no longer spoken about or largely forgotten. It is always fun to connect with people who remember going to these places, worked behind the counters or were responsible for keeping them afloat. That is what I was hoping to do with Chicken Unlimited and many others, provide a place with a little history and a lot of memories. Thank you so much for taking the time to do so. It was great hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

I worked at the Chicken Unlimited in Lisle for 3 of my High School years up to 1978. I had worked in the back with the fryers, and in the front as needed. The Chicken was very good. You just don't get it like that anymore. Popeye's, Churches, KFC...they just don't get you there.

That was good times and good food.

Didi said...

It certainly sounds like it was good food. That was back during a time when fast food wasn't just pre-shrink wrapped, pre-heated wonders.

Anonymous said...

We had a Chicken Unlimited out here in California that my family used to patronize all the time. Fried chicken by the box, as meals, and fish were on the menu. Later on, there was a roasted variety, too. The quality of the chicken was always much better than KFC.

I suspected that is was a chain, but was never sure, since it was the only one in the area.

About 8 or 9 years ago, it morphed into a Mexican chicken place. We had stopped going since it had changed owners a few times prior to that, and quality had fallen.

I drove by recently, and the yellow theme of the pollo joint was replaced by the familiar logo of Chicken Unlimited again, which piqued my curiosity. A quick search and I ended up here.

I haven't stopped by to check it out, but I'm curious.

I don't know if it was part of the CU theme, but ours had a wall mural of a street scene in a French town that always made it a little different than sitting in a typical fast food joint.

Didi said...

Wow! That's a pretty amazing and bizarre tale at the same time, Anonymous. It's interesting that the new owners or people have now gone back to using the Chicken Unlimited name. Re-looking over what I wrote, i don't recall ever finding any info that said they had locations in California. As I mentioned they were trying to expand into other states so maybe the lone California location was something that didn't quite pan out all the way.

Thank you so much for stopping by and being kind enough to leave a comment.

Anonymous said...

I REMEMBER WHEN I LIVED IN HAMMOND IN IN THE 70'S CHICKEN UNLIMITED BEING AROUND AND IN THE CHICAGO AERA WHEN I WENT PLACES WITH MY DAD. I REMEMBER COMING TO FLORIDA AND IN THE TAMPA BAY AERA THERE WAS 6 THAT I REMEMBER AND THERE WAS 1 IN FORT MYERS. ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO MAYBE A LITTLE LONGER THERE WAS STILL 2 OPEN BUT THERE WERE NOT UNLIMITED. THE ONE IS A LAWYERS OFFICE NOW I BELIEVE.

Didi said...

It is interesting to hear from someone who remembers them well in Chicago as well as Florida. Thank you for your great comments, Anonymous.

Greenhopper said...

I worked in a Chicken Unlimited in South Miama FL in the early 70's.
I made chicken in the fryers and also worked on the grill.
In the back, we would always 'fold' the wings before cooking. It was one of my first jobs and I'll always remember it. My Boss, Manny, called most of us 'Bugee', or 'Bubba' and made sure we were working every second.

Didi said...

At seems like alot of folks out there have found memories of their first job being in a fast food establishment of some sort. It's cool that yours was Chicken Unlimited, Greenhopper. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Chicken Unlimited still exists! There's one in Eau Claire, WI that's still open and everything. There's no website though. Here's a local review blog: http://volumeone.org/restaurant/63/Chicken_Unlimited.html

Didi said...

Hey, thanks, Anonymous. Looks like when of the last vestiges of the Chicken Unlimited is indeed alive and great picture of the inside on the website.

Anonymous said...

I know of at least two Chicken Unlimited's in California. I was one of the first employees of the first one that opened in Canoga Park/Chatsworth. It was on De Soto Ave near Nordoff and right across the street from Atomics International. It was opened by an Amenian guy named John who paid me $1.35 as the cook. He had a guy named Ed who came out from Chicago to help him get the place open and running and then he left and moved up to San Mateo where he opened a second franchise on 9th Street if memory serves me correctly. I remember the food being great and that guy John must have made a fortune just from the lunch crowd that filled the place from Atomics International. Every night when we closed, John took whatever leftover chicken there was to the local police station. They keep a good eye on the place and he never had a problem with robberies! After three months John never gave me the raise he promised me (even though he asked me to be the assistant manager), so I quit and got a better job making $2.25 an hour!

Didi said...

It is interesting to note that they tried to make it out in California. Interesting story. Thank you, Anonymous.

Sela said...

I worked at the Chicken Unlimited in Harvey and Dolton, IL. They had the best chicken in Chicagoland. They had the biggest breasts and the best shrimp.

Anonymous said...

Chicken Unlimited was also in Darien, Il. Just east of Cass Ave near the intersection of Plainfield & 75th St. The location is now Brooster's, and has been since CU went under.

Didi said...

Sela and Anonymous, thanks for providing us with additional location info and, of course, your fabulous memoires.

Rick said...

Back during the summer after my sophomore year in high school, (1972), I worked at a Chicken Unlimited on the 4800 block of W.Division St. in Chicago. Started out shredding the cole slaw and mixing with the dressing in a huge bowl. Graduated to the front. grilling the burgers. Loved that part cause they smelled so good. Made the big time soon, got to do the frying. But it wasn`t really frying tho, it was a large pressure cooker. Many, many pieces of yardbird went out the door of that place. And, the chicken as I remember, was pretty tasty. I miss it. Might have to check out Eau Claire, just for old times sake.

TJ said...

I grew up in St. Petersburg, FL. We has 3 that I know of. 2 on 4th St. N. & 1 on 66th St. N. The 66 St building still exists, but is a gay bar now (I think). They were all run by a family. (Father & 2 sons) Their gizzards were the BEST! I still compare all gizzards to theirs.

Anonymous said...

Chicken Unlimited was my first job, at 15 years old, in Deerfield Beach, Florida. The building looked exactly like the one in the ad you've posted. We had to wear hideous red and black uniforms, and the radio commerical is seared into my memory:
"Take it out on us, take it out on us, Chicken Unlimited, take it out on us."
The Deerfield Beach store was next door to a funeral home, and I ended up dating one of the embalmers there for a couple of years.