Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp have made it a point to do things a little differently from the very beginning.
The co-owners of Chicago’s iconic Honey Butter Fried Chicken met at Kendall College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, both pursuing second careers. After graduating in 2005, both Kulp and Cikowski began working in highly coveted kitchens around Chicago. Today, they have launched and been involved in four extremely successful businesses—Sunday Dinner Club, Honey Butter Fried Chicken, TriBecca’s Cubano, and Camchi Kimchi.
In Chicago, they’re nothing short of community heroes—establishing themselves as a sanctuary restaurant, eliminating tips within their business, ensuring everyone receives fair wages and benefits, and serving up the best darned fried chicken was only the beginning.
As a long-time fan and friend of these two and their excellent fried chicken, I approached them with the idea to host a dinner that honored their journey and the community they’ve built. The result was not one but three nights of great food, familial atmosphere, and reminiscing on the plucky decisions they made to build success on their own terms.
Shortly after graduating culinary school, Cikowski and Kulp decided to throw dinner parties for friends and family. The two saw it as a way to continue honing their craft and experimenting with different concepts while giving some love to their community. Once a month, on a Sunday, the two would gather in one of their apartments with family and friends to serve a themed menu. Thus, Sunday Dinner Club was born.
Through Sunday Dinner Club, the two chefs began to develop long-lasting relationships with local farmers to source products for their intimate gatherings. Word began to spread and soon chefs and enthusiastic diners alike were clamoring for an invite to the table. What began as a once-a-month endeavor quickly grew but the intimacy and aspect of community never changed. Rather than expand into a restaurant, Cikowski and Kulp continued to operate these dinners out of their home kitchens (you try entertaining 30 people from your kitchen and see how that goes…).
They did, however, start hosting more dinners each month.
A decade later, Sunday Dinner Club has served thousands of diners and is now a thriving business, hosting multiple dinners every month.
Un-Plated’s celebratory dinner with the duo was held over three nights at Sunday Dinner Club (now located in the private dining space above Honey Butter Fried Chicken) as a tribute to where it all began. Despite the torrential rain and cold of the weekend, diners ascended the winding staircase with big smiles on their faces, wine bottles in hand—one for them, one for the table and, often, one for the kitchen staff (Sunday Dinner Club is BYOB). As people shook their coats off and selected seats at one of the three large tables, there were waves and happy shouts of greeting towards the kitchen—a pure example of friends and family gathering around the table for a meal.
Over the course of the three dinners, people proudly shared their stories of attending Sunday Dinner Club back when it was held in the chefs’ apartments. One woman described attending the very first dinner Cikowski and Kulp ever hosted! Together, these guests have been just as much a part of Cikowksi and Kulp’s adventures to grow into successful business owners. As for the first-timers in the room? Each vowed to be back, with friends.
One of the Sunday Dinner Club menus that Cikowski and Kulp brought about involved fried chicken as one of the courses. Another course on the menu was served with a helping of honey butter. Some say that the chicken fell into the butter; others assert that the butter fell on top of the chicken. Either way, the two co-mingled in the kitchen and by divine intervention someone decided to take the bite that would change the world as the two chefs knew it. Immediately, Cikowksi ran into the dining room and exclaimed, “Put the butter on the bird!” The rest, as they say, is history.
What many don’t know is that Cikowski and Kulp waited for years before opening Honey Butter Fried Chicken.
“It’s kind of like when you decide to get married or decide to get into a relationship,” Cikowski explains. “I’m blessed…and cursed…with a very ambitious business partner with a strong vibrant vision for the future. He’s been wanting to open a restaurant since we started. It took me a really long time to get on board with that. It’s such a hard life, especially if you’re not doing well.”
Cikowski and Kulp went through all the pains of opening a restaurant. Their budget kept escalating—finding the right space; construction; equipment and licensing were all serious challenges. Even the name was subject to much debate—Cikowski was originally against calling the restaurant Honey Butter Fried Chicken. But, all along, the two had a very clear goal of “doing some good in the world”.
From the very start, both Cikowski and Kulp agreed on several things. For starters, they wanted to create a nurturing work environment for their employees. Rather than adhere to the low minimum wage + tip business model, the two co-owners abolished tips and paid their employees fair wages and benefits from the very start. Over the years, they have committed to generous vacation policies, parental leave, and an open-book system of management. They also made a commitment to supporting local farmers and being uncompromising on their ingredients. All the chicken at HBFC is locally sourced, humanely slaughtered, and cage-free. Cikowski and Kulp were also environmentally conscious from the beginning, establishing a no-waste program at the restaurant. In a bold move that was initially criticized as much as it was celebrated, they decided to remove the bones before frying the chicken. This lowers food waste and allows them to repurpose the bones to make stocks and gravies.
All in all, Honey Butter Fried Chicken was unlike anything Chicago had seen before. And it worked. The day the restaurant opened in 2013, lines were snaking around the block and, despite some initial criticism, the popularity hasn’t died since. Believe the hype, people.
More importantly, Cikowski and Kulp have been able to stand as leading members of the chef community on wellness in the workplace and advocates of fair wages for all.
Cikowski and Kulp are humble when it comes to their success, always pushing to give credit where credit is due. And, let’s face it, Honey Butter Fried Chicken wouldn’t be what it is today without the help of two integral people—Cam Waron and Becca Grothe.
Both Waron and Grothe attended culinary school with Cikowski and Kulp. “Cam was one of our friends,” Cikowski describes. “But Becca was too cool to hang out with us.”
“She’s going to kill me when she [reads] this.”
Like Cikowski and Kulp, Waron and Grothe went on to work at restaurants around Chicago. Waron worked under Bill Kim (bellyQ, Urban Belly, Belly Shack) for six years, all while keeping in contact with his old culinary school friends (and dating Grothe!). When the news first broke of Honey Butter Fried Chicken becoming a restaurant, Waron immediately emailed and asked, “Can I be your chef?” The immediate answer back was Y-E-S!
Waron and Grothe were instrumental in the opening of Honey Butter Fried Chicken (their wedding was two days before the restaurant opened, which is insane from a logistics perspective and I will forever be in awe). Waron has since taken on the role of Chef de Cuisine at Honey Butter Fried Chicken while Grothe became a permanent fixture as Executive Sous Chef of Sunday Dinner Club.
They say lightning never strikes twice at the same place but Sunday Dinner Club has proven to be impervious to that rule. When Grothe served up her mouthwatering version of a Cubano sandwich at a Cuban-themed dinner, Kulp and Cikowski were convinced that the sandwich deserved a home of its own. They encouraged Grothe to open TriBecca’s Cubano, becoming principal investors. After several successful pop-ups and a three-month stint at Chicago’s Revival Food Hall, TriBecca’s is currently on the hunt for a permanent home. Come early 2020, we might get some good news on that one!
While Grothe steps away from her role at Sunday Dinner Club, another member of the ranks has risen up to step into her own dreams. Alex Skrzypczyk (no, that’s not a typo) joined the Honey Butter Fried Chicken team in 2016 originally in a front of house position. Despite being in culinary school, Skrzypczyk was too nervous to apply for a position in the kitchen. Cikowski gently but firmly pushed her in the right direction and neither have looked back since. Skrzypczyk rose quickly as a line cook, shining in the breads and pastries department. Today, she is taking over as Executive Sous Chef of Sunday Dinner Club.
While Grothe was busy conceptualizing new menus for Sunday Dinner Club, Waron indulged in his home hobby—fermenting kimchi in their guest bedroom. He would often share his best batches with Kulp and Cikowski and the trio began featuring the kimchi on Honey Butter Fried Chicken sandwiches.
Both Kulp and Cikowski take individual credit for the idea to call the concept “Camchi Kimchi”. Waron grins and doesn’t take sides. As with the Cubano, both were convinced that the world needed more Camchi in their lives. And so, they began helping Waron create a business plan for bottling and selling Camchi in stores. It is currently available at Honey Butter Fried Chicken and by 2020, Chicago shoppers will find it in several grocery stores.
The Future for Christine Cikowski, Josh Kulp, and their Colleagues is Bright…and on their own terms.
I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews with people in the restaurant industry over the past two years and one thing is clear—running a restaurant presents emotional and financial hardship for which you can never be fully prepared. Often times, people are more than willing to accept the strain and the stress as part of the status-quo. But celebrating what Cikowski and Kulp have built together makes me wonder—do we have to?
What if every new restaurant owner goes into business with the plan to always pay fair wages and benefits? What if parental leave and vacation policies are included on the books from day one? What if the leaders of the business invest in their best employees, building a family of not just people but a successful set of businesses that do good for the community?
Many will answer that it depends on the city, the type of restaurant, the number of employees, and other factors. And it certainly does. But the duo who began throwing small dinner parties and now run four successful businesses have proven that it doesn’t hurt to hold yourself to the standards you wish to see in the world.