When Mike Rosen and famed chef Richard Blais opened their first Crack Shack restaurant in Little Italy last November, they described the venture as a leap of faith. Would health-conscious San Diegans willingly queue up for gourmet fried chicken at $3 a wing or breast?
Turns out San Diegans have an insatiable appetite for the duo's free-range, organic Jidori chicken. On a typical Saturday, the fast-casual restaurant at Juniper Street and Kettner Boulevard sells up to 600 chicken sandwiches and countless orders of fried chicken and other chicken-and-egg-themed items.
To celebrate their unexpected success, the duo is now planning to hatch a couple more Crack Shacks in the coming months. The second outlet will arrive in December/January in the former Coco's restaurant at 407 Encinitas Blvd. in Encinitas. A third location has been leased in Costa Mesa for a March 2017 opening.
On Wednesday, Rosen and Blais walked around the now-gutted Coco's, pointing out architectural details they'll keep and others they'll bulldoze to give the restaurant its signature Crack Shack look.
Like the Little Italy location, the Encinitas destination will have a walk-up order window, open-air seating for 150 under a shade roof, a bar, a bocce court, dog friendly patio and a gigantic fiberglass chicken. The Encinitas location will also add a sandbox, something they wish they'd thought of in Little Italy, where families with small children make up a large share of customers.
Blais said he and the culinary team led by executive chef Jon Sloan will develop a few items unique to the Encinitas store, including the healthier option of rotisserie chicken.
"As we grow, we want each location to be unique to the community it serves, so we'll always try to create menu items that cater to the locals," said Blais, 44, who lives with his wife, blogger and yogi Jazmin, and their two daughters in Del Mar.
Crack Shack is the second successful collaboration for Blais and Rosen, a La Jolla-based entrepreneur and passionate foodie. After Rosen bought a one-block property in Little Italy in 2011, he recruited Blais - the first winner of Bravo network's "Top Chef All-Stars," who was then running several restaurants in Atlanta. Their shared vision was to boost San Diego's fine-dining credentials on the national scene.
Their initial venture was Juniper & Ivy, a highly successful fine-dining restaurant with a menu entirely composed of West Coast ingredients. Since it opened in 2014, Juniper & Ivy has consistently appeared on diners' and critics' "best" lists, both locally and nationally. It was also featured in a recent episode of "Top Chef," for which Blais now serves as a season judge.
Once Juniper & Ivy was up and humming, Rosen set his sights on developing a second quick-service, chicken-themed eatery next door, where a tin shack had stood for 75 years. Crack Shack was an instant success that Blais said has far exceeded his expectations.
"Mike has only known success, but I've failed before many times, so from my perspective this is truly amazing. I'm grateful for how people have embraced us," said Blais, a food media darling who regularly appears on cooking shows including "Back of House," "MasterChef," "Guy's Grocery Games," "Cutthroat Kitchen" and more.
The Encinitas location will have a similar footprint to the original, though with a larger stand-alone kitchen to better accommodate demand. There will be seating for about 150. Rosen said he has applied for a full liquor license. He hopes the fact that just 22 percent of Crack Shack sales are alcohol, and liquor is only sold during food service, will sway the licensing board.
The building, built as a Bob's Big Boy in 1975, will retain much of its roof for weather protection, but the front walls will be knocked out to give it an open-air feel. Because the patio dining element is such an elemental part of the Crack Shack ambience, Rosen and Blais said they don't see Crack Shack expanding outside Southern California.
"We could end up three outlets, or eight outlets, it will depend on how they're received. But I don't think it will work outside this region because the weather isn't as good anywhere else," Rosen said.