Meet the lady who helped Rocky make his Hot Chicken Shack into a hip West Asheville diner.
by Mick Kelly . photo by Matt Rose
Fear not, hot chicken fans: Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack, the macho Hendersonville Road dive that served only blisteringly hot chicken breasts (on top of white bread–with a pickle) has reopened in West Asheville after closing for more than a year. On opening day last month, hundreds of people filed into the new Rocky’s, named for co-owner Rocky Lindsley, in the former Tomato Cocina Latina space on Patton Avenue in West Asheville. The draw? Well, the buzz about the new place was palpable, as was the intrigue surrounding Rocky’s infamous main dish, a juicy chicken breast that ranges in spiciness from Plain (“scared,” says the menu) to Hot (“pepper spray”) to XX Hot, which comes with the warning: “Mt. St. Hell No!” Lindsley says his hot chicken is known to cause euphoria, and at the very least, he promises you’ll sweat.
But one of the real secrets in the new restaurant’s sauce is Lauren Cundiff, the woman who helped revamp and redesign the shack. Cundiff, a 51-year-old former Whole Foods executive who helped the chain design new stores in the South and West, moved to Asheville in 2008 when her husband, Rich Cundiff, also a Whole Foods exec, was offered a job as COO of Earth Fare. Richard had stopped by the old Rocky’s for lunch, and Rocky and the couple became friends.
In addition to working for Whole Foods, the Cundiffs ran a gourmet restaurant and grocery business in California wine country, so they weren’t new to the restaurant biz. When Rocky’s shut down last spring, the pair decided to take it on as a project, Rich as an investor and Lauren as Rocky’s active business partner. First up: finding just the right space, which they did in the abandoned Tomato Cocina Latina on Patton. After a bit of research, Cundiff found that the building in 1968 housed a Yogi’s Honey Chicken Shack. She spent five months gutting and removing, opening the place up with corrugated steel and barn red shutters. The main room’s centerpiece is a long bar made of salvaged Brazilian Rosewood. Where the old place was a dim cinderblock shack that sat less than 25, the new Rocky’s is light-filled and seats 108. “It’s a little more pretty than a true shack would be,” Cundiff says.
The menu’s centerpiece is still hot chicken, prepared by Rocky, who runs the kitchen. But Cundiff, who oversees finances and general operations with seven new employees, encouraged Rocky to add a few more items to the menu, like (gasp) salad, vegetables and local beers. So far, the expanded—dare we say, more feminine—Rocky’s has had steady lunch and dinner crowds, according to Cundiff. “It’s kept us on our toes,” she says. The crowd is a good sign for those who are glad the shack is back.
For more, see www.rockyshotchickenshack.com.