There’s a common belief that when a new restaurant opens up in Bakersfield, particularly a chain that has never been here before, the place is overrun with customers for weeks.
While I’d love to refute that, to say citizens in many fine cities in the United States do the same thing, I’d have to ignore all the evidence from the recent opening of Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers.
We first tried to visit on a Friday night the week it opened. They had to employ traffic officers in the parking lot and that should’ve given us a big hint that this was not going to be our night to dine on these spectacular delicacies. The line at the drive-through that snaked to the back end of the parking lot should have been another clue. The line of about 20 people out the door was another hint. But the fact that we couldn’t even find a parking spot killed the mission. Poor Buffalo Wild Wings next door. Wonder how they felt about this madness.
New strategy: Go at 4 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. Surely that would be possible, what with all the college basketball games going on. It worked. The line for the drive-through and to order was just as long, but we actually found a parking spot. I think three more were available. I almost thought about renting the other spaces out.
If you’ve been to any of this chain’s restaurants in Southern California, you might understand the enthusiasm. This is a restaurant with a fun story, which you can discover on the walls and playing on the video screen behind the counter. And who wouldn’t like a restaurant named after the owner’s dog? (More on that later.) Founder and CEO Todd Graves came up for the concept of the restaurant while in a business class at LSU. He got a bad grade. In fact it was the lowest grade in the class.
He didn’t give up. He worked at refineries in El Segundo and Torrance to earn money to build his dream and even went salmon fishing in Alaska, which I’m sure you realize from “The Deadliest Catch” is not an easy way to earn money. He took that money and an SBA loan and opened his first restaurant near the LSU entrance in 1996. Since then it has grown to 400 locations in 24 states on a simple “One Love” concept: We don’t do much, but what we do we do well. The menu has three combos differing only in the number of “fingers” you get (three, four or six — I recommend four unless you’re really hungry) and a chicken sandwich.
They brew their own tea (sweet or unsweetened) and make their own lemonade, which can give Chick-fil-A a run for its money.
They brag about their secret sauce, which I was relieved to find is not just Thousand Island dressing. You can find the recipe for it on the internet: mayo, ketchup, garlic salt, black pepper and Worcestershire sauce. That sounds about right. I grew up in a house with a father who thought Worcestershire sauce was a secret ingredient that made almost anything better. I’ve yet to find a reasonable exception to that.
My companion got a chicken sandwich combo ($7.19) made with three of the fingers and a darned impressive Kaiser bun. I bought the four finger box combo ($8.35). You can’t not get a drink here. If you order the items outside of a combo, it’s more expensive. so just suck it up and get the lemonade, which thankfully is kept behind the counter so you won’t keep refilling your cup. The iced tea is available for free refills, as are sodas.
The box combo includes a slice of Texas toast, crinkle-cut fries that appear to be the only item not made fresh on the premises and a respectable coleslaw. The chicken strips are natural breast meat strips cut thick and long and breaded on the premises with a simple flour coating — no 11 herbs and spices here.
The crew was working hard to keep up with all us hungry customers, and you can see them in the open kitchen behind the counter. In fact they were working so hard they make the In-N-Out staff look like they’re at a spa for the weekend. Yet, they all kept their smiles. Considering the crowds, I’d say a bonus is in order.
The sauce is a great dip for the fries and the chicken, which is moist inside, crispy outside and good enough that you can understand why people get real patient while waiting for it. Although the place was packed it took only 10 minutes after we ordered it at the counter for the staff to call our name. That was impressive.
The atmosphere is fascinating: Lots of stuff on the walls with the history of the place and some local memorabilia such as a Buck Owens album and a tribute to our city’s most famous poet, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Frank Bidart. There are mirrored disco balls in the ceiling, possibly to appease the after closing time crowd (they don’t shut the doors till 3:30 a.m. on the weekends). One tip for the manager: Get a shade like Eureka! has to handle the harsh afternoon western sun, which made some of the chairs and booths unendurable even with sunglasses at the time we visited.
One more tip: If you visit and anticipate becoming a regular ask the crew for a Caniac Club card, which you can register on the internet for a free combo box and use to get more free food as a frequent flier. You can’t just register on the internet to join. Get the card on your first visit and you’re on your way.
And the name. The original name in his business plan was weak, but while they were building the first restaurant he brought his dog Cane to the site a lot, and everyone took a liking to him. Then someone suggested naming the place after the canine. Something his business professor could’ve suggested but he failed that one.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears in The Californian on Sundays. Email him at email@example.com.