Fried chicken has been big business in Tottenham for decades. Now, as the town seeks to resurrect itself in the wake of the 2011 riots, Tottenham has welcomed a new breed of chicken shop to town, and it hasn’t nested quite so easily in its new surroundings.
Chicken Town is a social enterprise which pitches itself as a “healthy fried chicken shop.” Yes. You read that right. They want to do this fried chicken thing a “little differently”. That means using “happy herb-fed chickens” which they “gently steam before flash-frying in rapeseed oil, for a delicious, healthier treat.” Aside from their noble mission to rescue this dish from the clutches of the deep fat fryer, Chicken Town also hopes to improve the lives of young people in the area.
“Our patch of London has some of the highest obesity levels in London. That’s a real problem on our doorstep, and we want to change things for the better.” Fair enough. So how are they going about this? Well, they sell “Junior Specials”, a charitable offer available to under 18s. Chicken Town surmises that for many young Tottenhamites fried chicken is a “daily ritual” and so instead of taking the choice away, they want to improve the quality of what’s on offer. For £2, local school children can get a meal. The deal is subsidised through the restaurant’s regular evening service, when two pieces and two sides will cost you £10. Keep up.
Post-riot Tottenham saw the GLA set aside £2billion to energise regeneration. Chicken Town received £300,000 in funding from this pot – a £85,000 donation, and a £210,000 loan. Create London, the charity behind Chicken Town also raised a further £85,000 through a Kickstarter campaign.
So what to make of Chicken Town? On first appearances, there are things to like about what they’re trying to achieve. The statistics upon which the founders of Chicken Town, Ben Rymer and Hadrian Garrard, launched the restaurant are not a fabrication. Haringey’s child obesity rate is high – in 2014 23% of Year 6 children were obese. Dunya Kalantery, Chicken Town’s Director, tells me that the restaurant has sold 3000 Junior Special meal deals since opening 14 months ago. The idea for Chicken Town emerged “after a three year study looking at the causes of obesity in young people, which eventually led to the opening of a small fried chicken stall outside a Newham School. But it quickly became apparent that it needed a business that could subsidise the meals – and Chicken Town was born.”
“Both new residents and locals come to the restaurant.” insists Dunya, who is particularly proud of the work that the restaurant is doing with young people in the area; “we’re discussing the importance of eating quality food to kids at an age when they might actually take it in.”
Speak to locals however and a slightly different picture emerges. Jeffrey Simon is the owner of Uptown Cuisine, a Caribbean Restaurant on West Green Road that opened a year and a half ago. Food is freshly cooked on site and all meals come with a free salad. Jeffrey has lived in Tottenham for 22 years, and employs his two sons. He emphasised that his restaurant is liked by locals because it has a “welcoming” atmosphere in which people feel “accepted.” Jeffrey opened the restaurant entirely under his own steam, and his only interaction with the council has been regarding the fines they’ve charged him for leaving refuse sacks outside his shop when his bin was full. When we asked James, a customer of Uptown Cuisine, about other eateries in the area, he said he’d tried Chicken Town but that to him “it’s just another chicken shop. I didn’t feel it was needed in Tottenham.”
Tapiwa Mutesva, a Zimbabwean born entrepreneur who grew up in Tottenham, echoed many of the sentiments made by Jeffrey. The key to good business in Tottenham is one that is able to evoke a sense of belonging and inclusion. “The problem with Chicken Town is that it’s not for me”, commented Tapiwa, “I don’t feel like I am supposed to be there. When it’s not set up and run by locals, the locals know, and it ends up only attracting young professionals who move into the area.”
That’s why Tapiwa set up his own restaurant called N17! serving toasties and prosecco. It was designed to be community orientated, like Chicken Town, but focused on nurturing a gradual dialogue between newcomers and long-term residents. Tapiwa hoped that this model could avoid the micro-segregation problems that restaurants like Chicken Town risk creating.
Ironically, it was thanks to Haringey Council that problems with Tapiwa’s business emerged from the outset. The same body happy to provide £300,000 to Chicken Town promised Tapiwa a decision regarding his application before Christmas 2015. In March of 2016, Tapiwa was still chasing for a response. During this period his savings were depleted, meaning he had limited resources with which to guarantee financial safety for the business. Though he made an application for interim funding from the council, they chose not to intervene. Ultimately Tapiwa was forced to close N17!, despite busy opening months due to financial problems the delay had precipitated.
To be clear; neither Jeffrey nor Tapiwa view regeneration as a bad thing. Both agreed that Tottenham is in need of investment. Jeffrey talked positively of the new redevelopment that was planned near his restaurant, hoping it will bring extra business to his restaurant.
But Chicken Town seems to be something else; a new breed of start-up, the brain child of so-called ‘social-entrepreneurs’. Not only is it arguably culturally appropriating a staple of the Tottenham food scene, it is simultaneously dismissing that same food as “revolting.” In a Guardian interview, Chicken Town co-founder Ben Rymer said of a local competitor’s food, that he “wouldn’t even feed to [his] dog.” On their website’s careers page, the restaurant states that it “wants to turn a dead-end job in a fast food joint into careers in London’s amazing food industry for young people from Tottenham.” Charming.
When asked about this quote, Dunya sounded shocked and didn’t want to comment specifically on the Guardian piece. She disagreed that Chicken Town occupied an “ambiguous space.” When pressed for more information on the concrete results that Chicken Town is delivering, or the metrics that it uses to evaluate its impact, the Director was unable to provide statistics beyond the junior specials figure.
For a social enterprise whose raison d’etre is about changing lives, this feels difficult to swallow. So far, a quarter of a million pounds has funded a restaurant that has subsidised 50 “junior specials” a week, and some workshops in local schools about healthy eating. Could this be achieved without setting up a new restaurant? Definitely.
And here lies the problem. Chicken Town fails to appreciate that obesity is ultimately an inequality issue and not simply one to do with food consumption, as they theorise. The masterminds behind Chicken Town appear to be oblivious to the fact that a restaurant selling fried chicken for £10 in Tottenham is a warning sign; that very shortly, locals will be forced out by the yuppies that their goodwill enterprise will attract.
The disgust displayed toward the culinary mainstaple of the town reveals at best a shocking lack of cultural and social awareness, and at worst a condescending presumption that young children in Tottenham need to be saved from “dead-end jobs”. Surely a more effective strategy would be to share the wealth around, working with local business owners in order to enhance their business acumen and diversify their menus? But both the Council and Chicken Town seem to think it can only be achieved by targeting children’s eating habits and introducing a hugely advantaged competitor to an already overcrowded market.
“Fried Chicken is the fuel of Tottenham,” Tapiwa told me toward the end of our conversation “it’s what this town runs on.” For the children of Tottenham, fried chicken is part of life – and to be frank, it’s probably the least of their problems. If social entrepreneurs really want to try and change the lives of children in Tottenham, then they need to listen to the experiences of people like Tapiwa and question what factors stood in his way. What they will find is that young people need money and the backing of their local authority to lift them out of poverty, not flash-fried herb-fed organic chicken.