Fried Chicken Fest sparks creativity and sales for Winnipeg chefs

By Colton Toews

“If it ain’t broke…” was The Capitol Grill and Bar’s entry into this year’s Fried Chicken Fest. The sandwich contains avocado, bacon, onion jam, honey, hot sauce, and cheddar cheese./WAYNE MARTIN

Restaurants across Winnipeg have been limited to delivery and takeout since new public health orders were issued on Nov. 12, 2020. Fried Chicken Fest, which ran from Jan. 16-23, was the kind of spark some restaurants needed during a challenging time in the industry.

“Our average sales doubled for the week,” Steve Toews, Yard Burger’s chef said.

Yard Burger, located in the Hargrave St. Market, opened in December 2019 and this was their first Fried Chicken Fest entry.

Toews, 33, said the increase in sales directly benefits employees. He said workers saw a significant increase in tips and a laid-off employee was able to return to work—all because people were buying “The Goober.”

Chef Toews’ “The Goober” is a fried chicken burger with peanut butter, blueberry and serrano jam, jalapeños, bacon, gouda cheese, arugula and an egg./TOEWS

Merchant Kitchen on Donald Street participated in the festival for the fourth straight year, hoping to win with “A Trip Down South.” Merchant’s chef, Brianna Vince, said despite COVID-19 restrictions, they were twice as busy this year.

Vince said Merchant Kitchen was able to bring back staff and give more hours throughout the festival. 

“It gives you a sense of normalcy,” said the 29-year-old.

Wayne Martin, 50, is the head chef at The Capital Grill and Bar.

“If it ain’t broke…” won last year’s competition, and Martin said they sold three times more this year.

“It increased our sales by probably 65 per cent,” he said. “We sold 170 sandwiches in one day.”

Martin said food festivals provide much needed hope for restaurant workers.

“It’s been a year of misery,” he said. “When you hear Pallister and Roussin saying [the restrictions] will be extended, it’s defeating.”

“It’s a double-edged sword,” added Toews. “It can cause germs to spread but it also drives the local economy.”

Toews said that the Code Red restrictions made this festival a lot safer than September’s Burger Week when restaurant dining rooms were still open.

Chef Vince’s “A Trip Down South” at Merchant Kitchen comes with a fried chicken thigh, collard greens, corn bread, rice and beans./TOEWS

Vince said she feels the festival raises the spirits of chicken-loving customers. 

“It gives the entertainment that you may not have right now,” she said. “It’s great to see people walking around downtown downtown and trying all the chicken.”

“There’s always an in-house competition to see how many you can sell,” she said. “It gets everyone going.”

She said her employees also enjoy discovering new restaurants.

“All the restaurants that are competing this year have risen to the challenge and you have to support your industry.”

Vince encouraged food lovers to post “#saveMBrestaurants” on social media to help raise awareness for the industry.