Drive down Camden Road in South End, and you’ll pass by shiny new office buildings, hip new restaurants and towering, luxury apartments. And in the middle of it all, you’ll also see a squat brick storefront that looks almost exactly like it did in the early 1960s.
Price’s Chicken Coop is one of the last holdout businesses in the rapidly transforming South End neighborhood. Very little has changed since it opened 55 years ago – in fact, Price’s has removed several items from its original menu, including its seafood dinner and chuck wagon steak. The restaurant still doesn’t have customer seating. It still only accepts cash. It still doesn’t deliver.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” co-owner Stephen Price explains, matter-of-factly.
Any given weekday, the Coop has a steady stream of customers flowing in and out of its little no-frills South End spot to pick up a quick fried chicken lunch. On a recent day, you could see construction workers from a nearby site, a doctor in scrubs, a few 20-somethings who live at an apartment nearby.
Johnny Jackson was just a kid when he started frequenting Price’s. Now 67, Jackson says he still swings by for lunch about three times a week. The fish sandwich, Jackson says, is the simple thing that keeps him coming back.
Skyrocketing property values have driven out Price’s longtime neighbors, and over the last year or so, Price’s, which owns its property, has been approached with two written offers from developers to buy the spot. But the iconic restaurant has no plans to leave its space at 1614 Camden Road.
“Part of it’s family, part of it’s heritage. It’s what we do,” Price says. “It’s what our customers have grown to expect. As long as our customers are happy, that’s what we care about.”
As Price’s remains frozen in time, the area around it is changing rapidly.
A few doors down is Camden Gallery, a multi-family project that includes 323 apartments and retail space for tenants like Blue Hem, the upscale jeans boutique. Houston-based Camden Property Trust also bought the building next door that previously housed a doggie day care, and the group is considering turning it into offices, records show.
Next door to Price’s is the 1616 Center, a five-story office building with ground-floor retail that includes local businesses like Fidelli Kitchen and Clean Juice. Beacon Properties bought the center’s property for $2.7 million in 2014.
Price would not say which developers have approached him with offers to buy his spot. But it wasn’t Camden or Beacon, which both own several other buildings in South End, and have prioritized local businesses over national chains.
Kristy Venning, who works in leasing for Beacon, said of the 1616 Center: “We decided from the beginning we wanted locally grown interesting cool retail and restaurant groups because we noticed that’s what the market wants.”
A spokeswoman for Camden similarly said the company wants to retain the area’s “authenticity and eclectic mix of local home-grown businesses.”
New development nearby has come at a price, as longtime businesses have closed their doors. The beloved restaurant Phat Burrito, for instance, closed nearby on Camden earlier this year. Amos’ Southend also closed earlier this year on South Tryon after almost 17 years in business. Both cited parking issues triggered by new development as reasons for their closure.
In Plaza Midwood, the dive bar Thirsty Beaver remains in its place, as Price’s does, despite the fast growth of apartment buildings all around it.
Stephen Price, 57, who owns Price’s with his cousin Drew, 51, shrugs when he says he hasn’t really thought about what kind of offer would tempt him to sell his spot on Camden. Also unclear is who would take over for the Price cousins, should they decide to retire.
“There’s no heir apparent right now,” Price says, adding his two kids haven’t expressed interest in going into the family business.
Before it was turned into a restaurant that cooked chicken, Price’s was Dilworth Poultry, selling fresh meat, fish and eggs, with live chickens out back. Price’s father, Talmadge, and uncle Keith opened Price’s Chicken Coop in 1962 in response to a local manufacturer who wanted a hearty, reasonably priced lunch option for his warehouse workers.
Back then, Price’s was surrounded by industrial buildings like metal parts-maker Charlotte Machine Company, which once occupied the spot where Camden Gallery now sits.
Stephen Price says he hasn’t thought about where the restaurant would relocate, if it had to.
“I mean, you couldn’t find as good a location, and that’s the thing. We’re still kinda in the middle of everything. You’re not too far from the east side of Charlotte, you’re not too far from the west side of Charlotte. You’re not far from downtown,” Price says, underscoring the very reason the area has become so hot.
The light rail is another reason. Construction of the Blue Line over a decade ago prompted subsequent development of thousands of apartment units, new restaurants, breweries and offices. The exposure Price’s has gotten from being right next to the light rail, Price says, has been a positive for business.
But Price says the fast development of the area hasn’t always worked well for small businesses like his. In summer 2015, for instance, the city installed parking meters to prepare for the influx of vehicles expected in the area with the opening of nearby office and apartment buildings. The meters charge customers from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m. Price’s is open from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.
“My customers didn’t have to pay for 50 years, and all of a sudden now they’ve gotta start paying,” Price says. “It’s more of a frustration than anything else.”
In some ways, Price’s has adapted with the times. It maintains active Facebook and Twitter accounts, for example. Unlike at most other restaurants, though, you can’t order online.
Despite the area’s changes, Price’s is still renowned in Charlotte and beyond. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton stops by periodically when he’s entertaining his teammates at his place. Jay Leno came in for chicken and sweet tea before a performance a couple years ago at the Belk Theater.
Price is unfazed: “They’re still customers. It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re black, blue, purple, polka dotted or whatever, as long as the customers are happy, and they get what they need at a reasonable price, that’s what we care about.”
That’s what’s kept longtime customers like Jackson coming back. And maybe it’s the food and price, or maybe it’s experiencing a Charlotte classic that draws in new customers, too.
“I try not to laugh too hard when someone comes in asking for grilled chicken,” Price says.