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The future of Big Chicken 

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

Page 4 of 10

CLUCKIN' ALONG: A baby chick wanders at White Oak.
  • Joeff Davis
  • CLUCKIN' ALONG: A baby chick wanders at Whie Oak.

The trip to White Oak Pastures was more than a field trip for Doty. He'd been a proud customer of the farm for years, buying thousands of pounds of grass-fed ground beef for a small burger chain he co-owned called Yeah! Burger. At the time of the visit, he was in the beginning stages of a new project he hoped would be spending a lot of money on White Oak's chickens.

Doty has had a career as a chef that most in his business would envy. After interning at Michelin-starred restaurants in Western Europe in his 20s, he returned to Atlanta in 1997 to be the right-hand man of Guenter Seeger, an iconic German chef considered Atlanta's best at that time. Doty opened his namesake restaurant, Shaun's, in 2006 and earned four-star reviews. Local foodies spoke about his Southern-styled reinventions of classic European dishes, like pork schnitzel and chopped liver, with hushed reverence. In 2010, to some surprise, he closed Shaun's to focus full time on a chain that serves cheeseburgers, milk shakes, and fries.

I met Doty after I offhandedly mentioned his career shift in an article about another chef, making light of his decision to close his namesake restaurant to run a burger joint. Shortly after that story ran, Doty asked me to get a cup of coffee and told me that I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about.

He wanted to make an argument for what's called "fast casual" dining. As he explained it, we expect fine-dining restaurants to source local, seasonal ingredients from farms that operate with humane and ecologically sound practices. We expect a starred restaurant to be able to tell us about the provenance of ingredients, what the cow was fed, how many miles away the greens were grown. That's simply the bar for operating a respectable restaurant in America today, no matter the culinary style. A middle-class person can afford to eat in a restaurant like that a few times a month, depending on how much income one cares to spend on food. What about all of the meals in between? This is where the fast-casual restaurant comes in.

A couple that celebrates an anniversary with a five-course prix-fixe meal at Bacchanalia, where many of the ingredients are sourced from the owners' personal farm on the outskirts of Atlanta, does not necessarily stop caring about local food after that meal ends. Whether they can afford to care is a different matter. Those consumers can probably justify regularly spending $10 on a burger for lunch, especially when the beef is grass-fed in state, the bun is baked in the neighborhood that morning, and the lettuce is hydroponically grown on the south side of the city. Doty's argument to me was that a fast-casual chain done right can do as much or more for local farmers than a four-star restaurant because people can afford to eat that way more often.

The fast-casual equation isn't a simple one. Better ingredients mean smaller margins, smaller margins mean you need more customers, and more customers mean you need to convince a lot of people that they want to start paying 10 bucks for a quick cheeseburger at lunch when they've been paying four dollars for a cheeseburger most of their lives. In the case of Yeah! Burger, the gamble worked. The chain has a couple of busy locations and a loyal following in two neighborhoods.

Doty said that morning how proud he was to be buying so much of Will Harris' beef, that it felt like the right thing to be supporting such a clean, honest operation with his burger joint. He explained that when he brought a guy from the fast-food industry in to see Yeah! Burger's kitchen, the guy was confused. "Where are all of your freezers?" he asked. The guy was blown away when Doty explained they were using almost all fresh, unfrozen ingredients.

One problem with Yeah! Burger, at least from a business perspective, is that it wasn't a unique idea. At the same time that it was opening, television personality Richard Blais was ramping up his burger chain, Flip Burger Boutique, into multiple Southeast locations and Farm Burger, a similar chain concept, was earning a following for a slightly more rustic and chef-driven feel. The market was crowded.

Around the time that Doty organized the trip to White Oak, he was busy cashing out his share of the Yeah! Burger chain and putting together investors to focus on another fast-casual concept built around a different protein: chicken.

A number of months later, he invited me to lunch with a few investors in this chicken business at a busy Mexican joint south of the city called Taqueria La Oaxaqueña. We passed around big plates of goat tacos and lengua tortas, making small talk until one of the investors said what everyone at the table was thinking. "I want to know," he said, "how is it possible to do for chicken what people have done for cheeseburgers?" That, for the investors seated at that table, was quite literally a multimillion dollar question. If they could create a successful fast-casual chicken concept ahead of the curve, before the market got crowded like it did for cheeseburgers, their investments could stand to pay off very well.

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