Chicken George boss Chris Cheah: Incredible response from Hitchin has been humbling

By Layth Yousif

30th Jul 2020 | Local News

A feature of Hitchin this summer has been the soaraway success of a new food business in town.

How many of us have walked or driven down Bancroft and marveled at the consistently large queues day or night outside a new restaurant?

The reason? Chicken George Jnr has hit town of course.

Hitchin has always been a busy place full of shoppers populating the town's bustling independent stores, packing the centre with savvy punters in search of quality food and drink.

To see queues outside shops is not unusual. Fabio's Gelato is a case in point, where crowds of families line up patiently to sample some of the finest ice cream in the country.

As Hitchin rouses itself after lockdown to once again become a 'destination place', with people traveling from London and far beyond to sample the unique offerings our market town can provide, Chicken George Jnr has joined in and added to the vibe.

Read on to discover the man behind the business and learn more about why their food has won a raft of awards – including the UK's best takeaway, beating off 35,000 competitors in the process.

No mean feat, even if Chicken George's owner did once work in Michelin starred restaurants.

Hitchin Nub News talked to Chris Cheah, the man behind the success that has got everyone talking – and eating.

…..

The first thing you notice is the queue. A long line representing the diversity that a modern town should have in 21st century Britain.

The reason so many are waiting on Hitchin's Bancroft? A restaurant called Chicken George Jnr.

Young and old wait in line, for the chance to sample food from a joint that has captured the imagination of many in and around our town.

But why did a small takeaway shop that first opened in 1985 in Luton rise to become Britain's best takeaway while specifically targeting premises in Hitchin - and rejecting possible sites in St Albans, Milton Keynes, Cambridge and Hertford?

"It's about love, and passion and care," shares owner Chris Cheah to Hitchin Nub News.

Rising to his theme he explains: "What is our secret? The quality of our food. We keep our prices down, we offer affordable, quality food.

"There is a sense here in Hitchin people feel relieved that they can actually come back out again after lockdown and enjoy themselves. We know – because people have told us – that our customers have travelled from London and many other places to eat here. Normally it's the other way around. But that's testament to the excellent reputation this town has as a place to visit for quality food and quality independent businesses – as well as the excellent food we offer.

"What we have found is that people are using Hitchin as a destination day out. That people are travelling from all over to visit this town.

"People can take their eye off the ball and look for shortcuts and quick fixes but for us it's always been about fresh chicken and doing things right. Doing things hand made. Things that might take longer in the process and more effort but add quality which ultimately results in happy customers."

Evidence can certainly attest to satisfied punters, delighted by the fresh food on offer made on site.

All their succulent sauces that coat their flavoursome fayre such as Biggie's Buffalo and You've Been Mangoed wings, Wing Fu Hustle jumbo strips and the spicy El Chapo chicken burgers are made in house.

Chicken is a theme that runs in Chris's family. His father Ray, started the business in 1985. Before that Ray was the man who brought KFC to Luton in the early 1980s, also opening branches in London.

Chris recalls with admiration how his dad branched out to start his own business becoming a local legend in the process. Many now visiting their shop in Hitchin fondly share memories of eating at the original restaurant in Luton – some from as early as the mid 1980s.

There is no doubt Ray is a cult figure. But Chris is fast becoming an icon himself after taking over the family business from his dad six years ago.

"I had worked in London for Michelin starred restaurants as a highly-trained chef," says Chris, adding: "I worked with some big names in the industry in London. When I took over the reigns from my dad I wanted to take it to the next level. I got awarded best takeaway in the East in 2015 and then in 2016 we won best takeaway in the country – beating off 35,000 entries.

"Ainsley Harriott was one of the judges. Considering we were up against some big boys and some well-established names in the industry – at that point we were a tiny little takeaway shop in Luton – to lift such a prestigious award was testament to the quality of our food. To be named best takeaway in the country was quite an achievement."

It certainly was. Even for such a talented chef with dishes in Michelin-starred restaurants on his CV.

Now wonder the new addition to the already hugely-renowned Hitchin food scene has been making waves.

Reports of two hour waits to be served are commonplace at busy times. The evening I joined the queue, for research – and to feed my three hungry young children – saw a stretch of more than an hour.

It was important to note social distancing measures were readily adhered to by the crowd who waited patiently and quietly, aided by helpful pavement signage provided by the restaurant itself. The night I visited I saw no litter, nor did I encounter any of the concerns some have raised on social media including noise, smell and behavior issues.

But what does Chris say to address local residents possible concerns?

"We are extremely conscious of our responsibilities," he underlines with emphasis, adding: "We checked in with North Herts District Council, we checked in with Hitchin BID, we had the police in, the licensing people – we really did make sure we ticked every box.

"We're a family run business with roots in the communities we serve. I live in Hitchin and we have good links with a lot of people here. We're not some faceless corporation. I'm in the kitchen here in our Hitchin branch most of the week, working 60/70 hours a week minimum.

"We want to be a good neighbour and will always work closely with the relevant authorities to ensure we do. I think we are a success story that should be celebrated.

"From day one all we've wanted to do is come to Hitchin and fit in and not cause anyone any problems. We want to buy into the ethos of Hitchin and the community feel, the family feel, the independent feel and show that the last thing we are is a big corporate chain coming to take and not give anything back – because that's not the Hitchin way.

"We want to add customers to Hitchin – we signed up straight away to the Hitchin Bid. So we're all for being part of the community."

With the town of Hitchin renowned for its community spirit, Chris has pedigree in backing charities too. His shop in Luton has consistently backed local causes and he has big plans to do so in Hitchin as well.

The business had already made inroads into a number of well-known Hitchin events that were due to take place before Covid-19 hit – with Chris insisting they will be behind plenty of endeavors when they return in 2021.

Chris has supported the NHS and key workers during lockdown. At the height of the pandemic Chicken George provided a large number of hot meals for hospital staff across Befordshire and North Herts by offering free food to nurses and doctors at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital as well as staff at Hitchin's Pinehill.

"We always supported charities and clubs in Luton and we have plans to do the same here in Hitchin," Chris explains. "We are in talks to sponsor Hitchin Rugby Club. We've done Taco Wars in Hitchin with Matt Bean at Cantinas Carntas.

"We sponsored the Hitchin Fireworks last year. We signed up to all the special days Hitchin offers people as a town such as Bancroft Day and we were very much looking to get involved with a number of event this year. Yes, Covid has put a stop to that – but we can't wait for next year to get on board a large number of community events in this town.

"We have great relations with a number of agencies in this town – including feeding the police who come in on their night shifts. We give them a discount and get them fed and watered, as they do such a great job in our community.

"We want this place to be part of the community. Where people can come and sit down and enjoy great food. Have a couple of drinks and get together and enjoy themselves.

"We haven't opened fully yet - but the demand for our food shows people are ready to come out and kick-start the economy. We are testament to the fact that, like everywhere in Hitchin, if you offer a quality product people are happy to come out and support local businesses in the town - and that can only be a good thing."

Judging by the number of happy faces collecting their food in an area which will ultimately turn into a bar with a 1am licence at weekends, Chris' ethos of 'Chicken for the People' is a winner.

It's also fair to say the business is boosting Hitchin in various ways – including offering work in challenging times. Chris says they already employ around 20 people on their books and are aiming for 30 - so are helping boost the local economy too. He has a wide range of employees, from 17-year-old students in their first job, to those with more experience who've worked in other kitchens.

During the fitout for the shop, which only opened last month, they also provided work for a number of builders and labourers in and around Hitchin who had been laid off during Covid and were suddenly out of work – meaning the shop was finished on time and all under the correct social distancing and government guidelines of course.

"Hitchin is a perfect fit for Chicken George," says Chris. "It's full of independent, family run stores. We've got Taste Buds next door who are our good neighbours, they're an excellent example of a successful family run business in Hitchin.

"Quite simply Hitchin was always our No1 priority – there's a great food scene in this town. Plus the fact I live in this town. I'm married to a girl from the area and I love the town and love being here. There's a real sense of community here.

"It's not just superb restaurants either - there are independent clothes shops and vintage shops for example.

"People come to Hitchin and go to Fabio's to keep ice cream, they go to the Beer Shop for their beer and us for their chicken. They go and sit on Windmill Hill and make a day of it. And we feel in a very small way we're helping kick-start Hitchin's economy again – along with a large number of other excellent family run businesses.

"When people come to us they don't just come here, they wander around all the excellent independent shops and buy things – which helps us all."

To start a new business is always a brave decision. To start one during a pandemic might be viewed by some as risky, if not foolhardy.

But Chris and his team deserve credit for their courage – which has hugely paid off judging by the monumental queues lapping up their food.

"You'll always get people saying don't open during a pandemic, don't do this, or don't do that – but touch wood, the response from our customers here in Hitchin and beyond so far has been phenomenal," he says.

"The day we opened, people queued for four hours. There is always a queue for our food. We always respect social distancing measures with spacing outside for those waiting to come in. All our staff wear PPE, we have hand sanitisers all over the place. We want to make it clear we haven't just flung the doors open and off we go. We have thought about how to keep people safe.

"Our slogan is 'Chicken for the people'. By that we mean chicken for everyone. For the community. For commuters with highpowered jobs in The City of London on mega salaries, high-flying businesspeople who want high quality food - as well as someone walking in off the street who wants feeding."

Hard-working Chris ends with a thank you. To his staff and to the town of Hitchin which is emerging from lockdown to once again become a vibrant destination for so many people.

"It's been a challenging time, an uncertain time for everyone – people have lost their jobs, people have been furloughed - and we just want to say a big thank you to everyone who has backed us since we opened.

"People have said we've given a lift to Hitchin," he concludes. "But the response we've received has been incredibly humbling."

As I write the words in shorthand in the busy shop on Bancroft, my eye is caught by movement in the queue in the window behind his left shoulder.

It seems yet another family has joined the long line for Chicken George.

     

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