It’s around 5 p.m. on a Thursday inside Crown Fried Chicken on Broadway in Newburgh, New York, and a young woman talks into her cellphone: “Be there soon! I have $6 on my card, and I’m hungry.” She laughs. “I had to stop at Crown’s.”
As she waits for her four pieces of fried chicken and a biscuit, a teenage boy hustles through the door, places his order, and sits on the edge of a bench seat, tapping his foot and singing under his breath. Colorful laminated posters of halal menu items cover the wall behind him: fried chicken, fried fish, burgers, beef patties, sweet potato pies, banana pudding, ice cream, kebab, gyro, and lamb over rice. A few minutes later, he jumps up, pays for his big box of chicken, and then jogs across the street to join his group of friends who are hanging out in front of a corner bodega; they happily share the chicken standing up. The next kid in line orders and pays for an ice cream. As he hurries toward the door, the cashier shouts from behind Plexiglas, “You’re short a dollar!” The boy freezes. “Nevermind, you pay later,” the cashier says. The boy darts off.
The Newburgh branch of Crown Fried Chicken looks and feels and tastes the same as a host of fried chicken shops operating under names like Royal Fried Chicken, New York Fried Chicken, and most commonly Kennedy Fried Chicken (sometimes spelled “Kennedy’s”) in neighborhoods across northeastern cities like Philadelphia, Albany, Hartford, and New York. Along a particularly dense stretch of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, you can see from one Kennedy to the next over several blocks.
This style of chicken shop is an archetype: the same laminated posters are on the walls advertising halal fried chicken — bone-in, battered-and-fried chicken made with halal meat — as well as halal soul food, Middle Eastern classics, and fast-food staples like burgers and fries; the fried chicken is roughly a dollar per piece, and a cashier serves from behind a Plexiglas window.
There is no official category for these businesses, though they’ve sometimes been called hood chicken spots — affectionately by regulars, derisively by outsiders — and for those who grew up with them, they are beloved, as much a part of the fabric of a neighborhood as the barbershop or corner store. No matter the name on the sign, the halal chicken shop is the first place you visit when you return from a trip, after school or work, and especially after leaving the bar, when, on some nights, the lobby pops like an after-party with music blaring through the open doorway from the street. “Kennedy is a staple!” says Bronx-based psychologist Shenea Brown of her local shop. “Those sweet potato pies…” She throws her head back and laughs. “The chicken is great, and everybody can afford it.”
Brown’s beloved Kennedy might share a name, menu, and business model with dozens of others across the region, but it is not a franchise — it’s one in a loosely unaffiliated network of halal-based fried chicken restaurants that, for more than 50 years, have provided good accessible food and job opportunities for new arrivals to America, particularly those from Afghanistan. Fahim Hotaki got his start working at a Kennedy in Harlem as a teenager after leaving his hometown near Kabul with his family in the mid-’90s. “By 18, I owned a 20 percent share of the business,” he says, and eventually went on to launch his own halal chicken operation with a small group of partners, Texas Chicken & Burgers.
“The most hospitable people on Earth are the Afghan people. We will give you a place to stay, food, or a restaurant name,” says Hotaki. “Anybody can open a Kennedy.” For as long as halal fried chicken shops have been around, that informal fraternity has helped countless entrepreneurs get started in the business without much quibbling over proprietary matters. Within the halal fried chicken network, each generation of owners shepherds the next, often letting them borrow their restaurant name when they are ready to open their own. It’s not uncommon to see laminated menu posters labeled Crown Fried Chicken or New York Fried Chicken inside a Kennedy or vice versa, and veteran owners are quick to share sourcing and pricing information.
Recently, however, some are wondering whether that generosity might be holding the businesses back. “Kennedy and places like that could be making more than KFC and Popeyes,” says Hotaki. “We’ve been in New York longer than Popeyes.” Now, after more than 20 years in the halal chicken shop business, Hotaki and his partners are trying to take halal fried chicken mainstream and shed the “hood chicken” reputation. Together the group owns 43 Texas Chicken and Burgers locations, and while the menu is still halal, they don’t look like the other shops. There are no prepaid calling cards hanging behind the register; there are no paper plates taped to the window with handwritten specials like “Fish Sandwich 2.99”; there are no laminated photos on the walls. Instead, you’ll find a much smaller digital menu backlit above the cash register, soda fountains have replaced the cooler behind the counter, and there are stiff new vinyl booths. Texas Chicken and Burgers looks like a franchise in a national fast-food chain, and while they haven’t officially franchised yet, that’s exactly what the partners are going for.
They aren’t the first to try to corporatize the halal chicken shop. In 2011, a Kennedy owner named Abdul Haye, who’d obtained the rights to the restaurant name and, according to the New York Times, warned legal action against using the name without his permission, which threatened to “unravel the fragile harmony in the fried chicken fraternity.” Ultimately, it wasn’t Haye’s legacy to undo. He, Hotaki, and most halal chicken shop owners are following a blueprint written two generations ago by a man named Taeb Zia — nicknamed Zia Chicken or Zia Morgh (in Dari) — an Afghan American who arrived in New York from Kabul in 1972 and learned the business while working at a place called Kansas Fried Chicken, owned by Black and Puerto Rican developer Horace Bullard. Zia opened Kennedy Fried Chicken in 1975; he used Bullard’s business model, but he sourced all halal ingredients and lowered prices. By the 1980s, Zia had six locations in New York, and many of his former employees had gone on to open their own as well, with his blessing. Almost all were managed and staffed by Afghan immigrants who had fled the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
That was the case for Hotaki and his family, who immigrated during the years of fighting between the mujahideen and the Soviet-backed communist Afghan government. His father left around 1989, and the rest of his family joined him in 1995. “I saw bombs dropping from planes in the sky,” says Hotaki. “We could predict where they would land based on the sound.” Hotaki’s father was a doctor and had to take a job driving a taxi when he arrived in New York. “It was sort of an embarrassment for us,” he says. “I was not like the average teenager over here. You want to go outside and play basketball, to have fun clubbing. Instead I was just focused on lifting up my family from the situation that we were in.” Hotaki started working at a Kennedy Fried Chicken on the corner of 145th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem, sometimes 14 hours a day. He rose quickly with hard work and the support of the tight network of compatriots.
Success stories like Hotaki’s aren’t uncommon in the halal chicken world — and is part of why the shops have continued to be such an attractive option for new immigrants. The profitable business formula is another. The restaurants typically operate in high-traffic areas, are open long hours (some as late as 4 a.m.), and the most popular items have always been legs and thighs, which are inexpensive on the front end, even when sourcing more expensive halal meat — a nonnegotiable. “They have to slaughter one animal at a time by hand with a knife, slowly, then recite a prayer and face Mecca,” says Ahmed Mohammed, an employee at a Kennedy Fried Chicken shop on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx. He holds up an app on his phone with a compass that points to Mecca. By expanding their halal offerings beyond Middle Eastern dishes to include classic fried chicken, they can serve a wider customer base; many cuisines can be halal as long as the ingredients are produced and processed according to Islamic law.
Hotaki’s motivation to deviate from the formula is based on the same sentiment he has always held: “I just want to pull my family up.” But he also acknowledges that some things are lost when you become a chain — and not just the quirky decor. Independent shops are able to adjust to the customer base of their neighborhood — a halal fried chicken shop in a densely Caribbean neighborhood might also carry tostones or coco bread; another, fried shrimp. Sisters Carmen and Maria Hernandez come to the Jerome Avenue Kennedy Fried Chicken specifically for its 12-piece fried shrimp basket. “You eat this today, and tomorrow you go back on your keto,” says Carmen. Additionally, many independent shops choose to offer free food to homeless people, let someone who is short a dollar pay later, and generally be sensitive to the needs of the low-income neighborhoods where the restaurants tend to be based.
But a large chain with centralized management needs homogeny and written rules. At a Texas Chicken & Burgers in Brooklyn, there is a sign directly facing the entryway that reads “No Begging, No Hanging Around, No Alcohol, 15 Minute Seating Limit.” “But if we make more money, we can help much more,” says Hotaki. According to the website for Texas Chicken & Burgers, the business contributes to church events, Thanksgiving food drives, iftar meals, a New York City-based Afghan soccer team, and other nonprofit efforts. In January, a building fire in the Bronx killed 17, including eight children, injured more than 60, and left many more homeless. Many of them were Muslims from Gambia. Hotaki and his partners mobilized, serving lunch and dinner to roughly 350 affected families free of charge.
Hotaki is confident that Texas Chicken & Burgers will continue expanding. More importantly, he believes it is the future for halal fried chicken and that the old network isn’t what it once was for Afghan Americans. “I see the new wave coming, and they are not getting into the fried chicken business,” says Hotaki, referring to the influx of refugees arriving from Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover last summer. His sentiment was echoed by a number of other chicken shop owners from the older generation, and they might be right. Compared with the 1980s, there are far more governmental and nonprofit support systems in place today, from groups like The Tent Partnership for Refugees and Upwardly Global, to help with the employment and resettlement of Afghan refugees. That leaves less of a need for the local community’s more informal recruitment efforts — and less new arrivals to man the chicken fryers.
Still, there are plenty more new American Muslims from places like Pakistan as well as Bangladesh, Yemen, and Gambia who are eager to follow Taeb Zia’s model. Ahmed Mohammed immigrated to the Bronx from Yemen in 2017 and recently started working part-time at the Jerome Avenue Kennedy. The shop’s owner — a fellow Yemini and friend of Mohammed — bought the business from an Afghan American, who sold it to invest in Texas Chicken &cont Burgers. “I have a job at Montefiore Hospital and a master’s degree in technology,” says Mohammed, “but business is in my blood. I’m here to learn from my friend and maybe open my own.” Mohammed’s coworker is a young Gambian named Muhammed Duku Reh, who says he knows several other Gambians working in halal fried chicken shops, but only two owners. “I think in the next generation, lots of us will be owners,” he says.
As I spoke with Mohammed, a woman came into Kennedy, sat at a bench without ordering, put her bags down, and began shouting loudly. But no one seemed bothered; the Hernandez sisters were busy enjoying their shrimp basket, and everyone else stood patiently in line. Soon, the woman picked up her bags and left. “We don’t chase anyone off here,” says Mohammed. “Especially when it’s cold, you have to treat people well and things will be fine.” Back in Newburgh, the Pakistani manager of Crown Fried Chicken, Waris Khan, hangs a sticker with a star on it next to the front door — part of a local grassroots initiative called the Star Project, where customers can pay extra and the cashier will set the money aside to cover someone who needs a free meal. The note is a welcome sign to neighbors in need. “We are Muslim,” says Khan, as he bags a customer’s chicken. “God says if you give one, you’ll receive 10 in return.”
Mike Diago is a writer, social worker, and cook based in the Hudson Valley.
Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based food photographer and the co-founder of Black Food Folks.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein