Eugene’s Hot Chicken so hot it’s cool

Eugene’s Hot Chicken so hot it’s cool
Eugene's Hot Chicken offers its chicken at various levels of hotness, and owner Zebbie Carney has worked to make each flavor distinctive. (Brittany Faush / Alabama NewsCenter)

Which comes first? The hot chicken restaurant or the food truck?

Zebbie Carney, owner of Eugene’s Hot Chicken, had his sights set on a restaurant. An executive chef who wanted his own place, he entered REV Birmingham’s inaugural Big Pitch in 2014 hoping to jumpstart that dream with the (then) $10,000 grand prize. He didn’t win the big bucks, but as one of 10 finalists, he did get lots of valuable exposure and advice.

Each Big Pitch finalist spent some 30 hours prior to the “Shark Tank”-style event in intensive workshops with mentors from successful area businesses. REV, an economic development organization that helps small businesses define and achieve their goals, made sure contestants had access to graphic designers, legal and financial advice, marketing professionals and business coaches.

In his pitch, Carney (who has since served as a Big Pitch judge) promised that his restaurant would be “awesome, exciting, fresh, something fun” with food for “the foodies, the millennials” – for everyone, really.

Carney also graduated from Birmingham’s CO.STARTERS program. A partnership among REV, Create Birmingham and MAKEbhm, this program helps aspiring business owners focus on the details of an entrepreneurial idea – the nitty-gritty of it all – in order to create a truly viable concept.

“It gave me a new way of thinking,” Carney says. “When I wrote the business plan, the restaurant was first. But when you realize the expenses that go into a restaurant, you need to start small. So we started with a truck. We thought when we outgrow the truck, then we’ll do a brick-and-mortar.”

Eugene’s Hot Chicken has the recipe for success from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Hot magic

Carney tested Birmingham’s appetite for Nashville’s hot chicken with some pop-up restaurants before rolling out his food truck in October 2015 with two items: chicken tenders and wings.

Two years later, he realized his dream of a brick-and-mortar eatery – on the south side of Uptown, just around the corner from the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau – but he’s still putting miles on the #BigRedTruck that first got this city’s attention.

Carney is a Nashville native who grew up eating Prince’s Hot Chicken, and every time he went home he would say to himself: “Man, we gotta open a hot chicken restaurant in Birmingham!”

While Music City-inspired, Eugene’s Hot Chicken is definitely a Magic City original.

“Hot chicken is hotter in Nashville,” says Carney, who focuses as much on the flavor as the heat. “My heat levels are Southern-fried chicken – no heat at all – just regular fried chicken, or you can get Mild, Hot, Hot Damn or Stupid. We added a Hot Damn for the restaurant. Mild is just a touch of heat. You get a little burn, but not too much.

“People always ask us for ‘medium,’ but we don’t have anything between Mild and Hot. You’re going mild, or you gotta go hot. Hot is hotter, but it’s a little sweet – it’s got the best of both worlds. The Hot Damn, it’s hot! It’s got a little sweet, too, but it’s also got some smokiness to it. Every level I got, I try to get a little unique with the spices. Stupid Hot is self-explanatory. You eat that at your own risk.” (There are ghost peppers involved.)

Whatever heat level you choose, you’ll find tender, juicy, flavorful chicken in a crunchy crust with a hint of sweetness beneath the spicy, glistening sauce.

Owner Zebbie Carney originally envisioned Eugene’s Hot Chicken as a brick-and-mortar restaurant, but he built his customer base with a food truck and pop-ups before finally setting up shop in Birmingham’s Uptown entertainment district. (Brittany Faush / Alabama NewsCenter)

Exploring the menu

Eugene’s offers quarter, half and whole birds, as well as wings by the few or by the bucket. Kids can get no-heat chicken fingers, popcorn chicken or grilled cheese sandwiches. There are freshly made dipping sauces – blue cheese, ranch, Alabama white sauce, BBQ and honey mustard – as well as traditional and inventive sides. The slaw is crisp and creamy, the potato salad starts with baked potatoes, turnips are slow-cooked and savory, and summertime sees heirloom tomatoes from Owls Hollow Farm on the menu.

The parsnips and carrots are an unlikely must-have. They are cut and cooked like French fries, but the result is heartier, more complex and slightly sweet. “We’re just trying to bring something unique to Eugene’s Hot Chicken,” Carney says.

Chicken tenders are the most popular item (in the restaurant and on the truck), but Carney is partial to the Hot Chicken Tender Sandwich. “It comes on a brioche burger bun. You can get the coleslaw … so you get the creamy, kinda sweet coleslaw and with pickles on top – and the saltiness of the pickles – it’s the perfect match.”

Carney recently added catfish as well as chicken and waffles to the Uptown menu, and both are already popular. He also makes sure there’s a selection of locally brewed beers to complement his dishes, and the breweries happen to be some of his favorite places to park the truck.

“All the breweries,” he says. “They’re always a cool place. And it’s an awesome match (with our food).”

Even though Eugene’s has a sitdown restaurant now, the big red food truck that made its reputation stays on the road. (Brittany Faush / Alabama NewsCenter)

Three key ingredients

Carney and his crew offer lunch and dinner at the Uptown restaurant and at the truck, which travels from one end of the city to the other and beyond. “We probably have 60 or 70 places we go,” he says. “We just rotate. Some places we hit once a month; some places we hit twice a month.” Avondale, Overton Park in Mountain Brook, Ross Bridge and Letson Farms in Bessemer are some regular stops. They travel from Leeds to Helena, going to hospitals and into neighborhoods. They also park at food festivals, UAB football watch parties and citywide celebrations.

All this moving around is made easier with social media, and Carney knows how to work it.

#WheresEugene and #FoundEugene trend each day among Carney’s more than 7,300 Instagram followers, 2,100 Twitter followers and more than 8,000 Facebook followers. The food truck schedule is posted on these platforms every Monday and updated every day (sometimes multiple times). “Because people forget,” Carney says. “We really want to let people know where we are so they can find that big, red truck.”

Carney’s clever posts – often with mouthwatering food photos and cool videos – remind people that the restaurant is centrally located, even if the truck is not nearby.

“For us, social media is huge,” Carney says. “It’s an expensive way to brand our product. The success of restaurants, in my opinion, depends upon three things: your brand, the quality of your products and customer service.” He works hard to keep his products consistent – mixing his spice blends himself – and he says he patterns his customer service on proven models like Chick-fil-A and Publix. Social media lets Carney control his brand’s message while frequently and quickly – and easily and inexpensively – reaching his fans.

Hearing testimonies

Eugene’s started out selling two items and has expanded its menu as business keeps growing. But the basis of its success remains simple: Southern fried chicken, done really well. (Brittany Faush / Alabama NewsCenter)

Eugene’s Hot Chicken appeals to people of all ages. College students flock there; you’ll find Eugene’s T-shirts (with a stylishly flaming chicken head) on campuses all over town. Eugene’s Hot Chicken is a quick and convenient lunch for office workers; a savory snack whenever; or an easy, takeaway weeknight meal for busy families (something this father of two young children understands). And now Eugene’s offers catering, too.

Places like Eugene’s, whether storefront or food truck, tend to add a certain cool factor to the city by bringing a hot, new commodity here; making it their own; and then making it popular and hip. But the time-honored, simple appeal of Southern fried chicken cannot be overlooked.

Carney tells a story of an older gentleman who visited his food truck in Overton Park. “He said he was in his 70s. He had ordered maybe an hour before, and he came back and he was like, ‘This is some of the best fried chicken I’ve had in 40 years.’ When you hear a story like that – you know he’s been around. He’s been around a lot of chicken joints, he’s lived in the South, he’s been around a lot of places. So just to hear people’s stories, their testimony … we get that all the time. Like ‘Man, I had to bring my mom here from California.’ You hear those stories, and it’s amazing.”

There’s just something about quality, freshly fried chicken slathered in a handcrafted, attention-getting sauce. Whether you go to Eugene’s or Eugene’s comes to you, Carney is serving some delicious finger-licking hot chicken. And that, by the way, is how it should be done.

“You’re supposed to eat it with your fingers,” Carney says, laughing. “You should never use a fork with hot chicken.”


Eugene’s Hot Chicken

2268 Ninth Ave. North

Birmingham, AL 35203

Restaurant hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.

Food truck hours: 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.; locations (and some times) vary, so check Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

205-322-7555

[email protected]

Follow Eugene’s Hot Chicken on Facebook, Instagram (@eugeneshotchicken) and Twitter (@chickeneugene) and at www.eugeneshotchicken.com

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