University City

Rather than cook, diners visit Chicken Box

Dianne Barnett says there are some foods a man probably won't ask his wife to cook at home.

So ox tails, neck bones and gizzards are on her menu every day at Chicken Box Café, the venerable but simple box-shaped soul food spot at 3726 N. Tryon St., at the edge of the North Davidson Street arts district.

Such quirky, old-school comfort foods aren't for the majority of diners. Barnett offers about 20 other main courses, including seafood, smothered pork chops and the house specialty, fried chicken dinners.

The N.C. Central University grad rounds out the menu with a selection of about 20 home-style side dishes as well as desserts.

The focus on variety since buying the place in 1999 has made the business successful enough that Barnet opened a second location this year in Gastonia.

She is preparing to open a third location this spring as many restaurant owners struggle just to stay afloat.

The new restaurant is scheduled to open this month with table service and hours extending to 10 p.m. at the former site for Sugar's Family Restaurant, at 1331 W. Sugar Creek Road.

Barnett, a Dallas and Gaston County native, plans to extend the menu even further at the new location by adding breakfast service starting in the spring.

"We've had demand for it for many years," said Barnett, 51, of requests for morning meals. "They want us to stay open later than 8 p.m., they want us to do breakfast. We will do that at the new location."

The new location is close to Interstate 85. Barnett hopes to tap into new markets that include long-distance travelers and commuters.

The new restaurant will offer those customers lighter items such as salads and baked fish, in addition to the lunch and dinner meals selling at the other locations.

Meals start at $1.99 for a barbecue, chicken or fish sandwich or a hot dog. Dinners start at about $7 for chicken to $15.99 for chitterlings, one more of the foods that many customers choose not to cook at home.

Most orders at the Charlotte restaurant - about 90 percent - arrive by phone, with customers often picking up meals at the drive-through window.

A staff of about 25 is serving meals seven days a week to about 400 customers a day on average, Barnett said. Before the recession, they often fed 500 or more.

Either way, they're still turning out impressive heaps of meatloaf, pork-free turnip greens, Salisbury steaks, broccoli casseroles and potato salad.

"People like to have choices," Barnett said. "That's why we came up with such a variety. Everybody has different tastes."