The Fall of the Chicken Gourmet Empire: Q&A with Owner Gerry Sanfrancesco
Chicken Gourmet has been the go-to place for a drunken late night fried chicken fix for decades.
Sadly this year the doors have closed on this Canberra icon to make way for the newly re-branded restaurant, Gerry’s Kitchen.
The fall of the mighty Chicken Gourmet empire is due to the changing market and the opening of the chain restaurant, McDonald’s, across the road, according to the owner Gerry Sanfrancesco.
Andrea Martinello spoke to Gerry about the re-branding of the restaurant and his appreciation for the devout customers over the years.
RIP Chicken Gourmet Civic – iconic takeaway closed to make way for pizza restaurant… a sad time for late night chicken lovers!!!http://ow.ly/31Fj30gUvpC
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the history of chicken gourmet?
A: “It started with a gentleman who went to America and saw KFC. There was no KFC in Australia yet and he decided to open a chicken shop in Civic called Chicken Gourmet with KFC style chicken in 1974. We ended up buying it in 1983. For the first four or five years, we continued it the way it was, which was a great business, but I wanted to develop it a bit more. It was fried chickens, BBQ chickens and a few salads and nothing else. But the market was changing so I started introducing chicken burgers, hot dishes, and more salads. We did that until about the ’90s. Then we did a massive renovation and put huge salad bars in, expanded on our burger range and made more meals to order. We still kept the fried chicken. It was always very popular. We were the first people in Civic to open all night on a Friday and Saturday. It slowly started to pick up and eventually it became an icon for civic at night.”
Q: How do you think capitalising on the late Friday and Saturday night market has iconised Chicken Gourmet in Canberra?
A: “That was where a lot of people got to know us. When we closed up we got 100k Facebook likes from all over the world, it was incredible. We had a lot of famous people come, like footballers and singers. It started to die down a bit over the last four years because McDonald’s opened up across the road. The younger generation has been brought up on McDonald’s so when they go out they end up there instead.”
Q: So what was the ultimate decision behind the re-branding of Chicken Gourmet into Gerry’s Kitchen?
A: “The area changed. Over the last four or five years, the Canberra Centre got bigger and bigger. They started opening up more food courts and restaurants and our lunchtime trade slowly dropped and kept on dropping. Night time was still quite strong but lunchtime trade wasn’t good anymore. People weren’t coming to that side of Civic during the day. When McDonald’s opened up it started taking my night-time trade. I had to do something because I started losing money. So I thought I might change or re-brand it and do a bit more up-market type meals and make it more of a destination point. We are not going down the drunken market anymore. We aren’t even open at night, that’s gone completely. We are going to try the whole daytime trade. My wife always said that if you make a place attractive for women then the men will come and that’s what we’ve done.”
Q: How will Gerry’s Kitchen keep up with the success of Chicken Gourmet?
A: “Marketing is very important. I just feel that where we are at the moment is a very hard area to get people to during the day because there are so many choices of food around Civic. We are trying to keep the price range at a good level where people can afford it and try targeting a different crowd of people. It’s been hard. The nighttime trade, I am finding difficult even now because people do come in and see that we don’t have any alcohol and go next door to O’Malley’s. If all else fails we might join with O’Malley’s and have the kitchen cooking for both places.”
Q: Do you have any crazy stories from the late nights at Chicken Gourmet over the years?
A: “Look, there are always funny stories and a lot of them are pretty full on. But overall, we met some really nice people and all of the late night customers aren’t drunk. Chicken Gourmet was the “in” place to go to. There has always been a great energy in there. If you had the right music playing, people used to say that it was almost like a nightclub or a disco. Everything just worked well for a long time. It was sort of the icon of Canberra but times have changed.”