Getting this chicken is less a stroll down memory lane than it is a lesson in how much has changed. The chicken counter is at the rear of an old McKenzie's Pastry Shoppe in Gentilly. Once customers enter through that familiar front door, they walk through the empty shell of the store. Its shelves now hold only community newsletters and stacks of handbills for local businesses. There is a small display case of donuts, buttermilk drops and assorted other sweets, but the employees quickly point out to anyone who asks that McKenzie's now buys these from Tastee Donuts, which acquired the old McKenzie's recipes years back.
All the action happens in a small, spare room in back where people stand and wait for their take-out-only orders of chicken and fries. The chicken is economical, with prices starting at $4.24 for half a bird, and it is delicious. The skin is thick and dark, audibly crunchy and liberally peppered.
'It's the same secret recipe my father and uncle had here since day one," says Gerald Entringer Jr., who represents the third generation of his family to run McKenzie's. 'And they were real secret about it, too. When I came on board I had to ask my uncle's permission to use it, since I was the guy who was going to be mixing it all up every day. He finally said, "Alright, but I'm only giving it to you.' I said, "Well, thank you " I mean, I only own half the company.'"
Gerald Entringer Jr.'s grandfather, Daniel Entninger, was a cheese maker who moved from Wisconsin to Biloxi, Miss., in 1924. He soon met Henry McKenzie, who later opened a bakery on Prytania Street. Daniel bought McKenzie's business in 1932, keeping him on as manager and retaining the McKenzie's Pastry Shoppe name. Donald Entringer took over management in 1936 at age 20. His younger brother, Gerald Entringer Sr., joined him in the business after finishing service in the Navy during World War II.
With actual baking operations centralized at a large facility on Desire Parkway, the brothers set about expanding their company into a network that would become 50 storefronts across the city. They opened Chicken-In-A-Box in 1952, and Gerald Entringer Jr. says they intended it as the first of many. As the company opened more bake shops, his father and uncle wrote a provision into their leases allowing them to subsequently operate Chicken-In-A-Box locations under the same roof. Those plans never materialized, however, and the Gentilly shop is the only Chicken-In-A-Box that ever opened.
'Like Schwegmann's was ahead of its time with grocery stores, I think these guys were ahead of their time in putting two different things like chicken and donuts together," says Entringer. 'If they did that all over the place and had 50 of these shops, would we ever have Popeye's? Probably, but it just makes you wonder what would have been."
After years of declining sales and a highly publicized run-in with state health inspectors, the senior Entringers closed McKenzie's Pastry Shoppes in 2000. A group of local investors bought the company and reopened some of the stores, but they soon went bankrupt and shuttered the operation for good in 2001. They sold the right to use the McKenzie's name and its formulas to Tastee Donuts.
McKenzie's Chicken-In-A-Box was owned separately from the bakery company, so it was not included in the sale and escaped bankruptcy. In the weeks after Katrina, Gerald Entringer Jr., discovered the business was only lightly damaged, for which he thanks its spot on the relative high ground of Gentilly Ridge. He reopened it in December 2005.
Gerald Entringer Sr. died 10 years ago. Donald Entringer, who is 92, lost his New Orleans home to the levee failures and moved to the Northshore. So it falls to Gerald Entringer Jr. to carry on the McKenzie's legacy, now with top-secret chicken batter rather than with glazed donuts and king cakes.
'A lot of people told me I should sell the place, that I was crazy to reopen, that I wouldn't get any business up here anymore," he says. 'But I guess it's something like feeling the driving force of what my dad and my uncle did before me. I was born in New Orleans, and even though I live in Kenner now, I knew I wanted to keep something like this going here."