Shack cracks open its doors in Encinitas

Chef/partner Richard Blais, foreground, gets down with the Crack Shack chicken at the new Encinitas location with, from left, manager Dan Pena, owner Mike Rosen, executive chef Jon Sloan and development director Joshua Lichtman.
Chef/partner Richard Blais, foreground, gets down with the Crack Shack chicken at the new Encinitas location with, from left, manager Dan Pena, owner Mike Rosen, executive chef Jon Sloan and development director Joshua Lichtman.
(Peggy Peattie / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Encinitas now has its very own “crack shack.” But don’t worry. It’s not what it sounds like.

On Feb. 13, the second outlet of San Diego’s hugely successful fried chicken eatery, The Crack Shack, opened at 407 Encinitas Blvd. The first Shack opened in Little Italy in November 2015. It became an instant smash and landed on dozens of “best of” lists (including MSN’s top 18 chicken restaurants in the U.S. last summer). Even today, on a typical Saturday it will serve up to 1,000 fried chicken and chicken sandwich orders.

Crack Shack was the second restaurant concept developed by La Jolla entrepreneur Mike Rosen and celebrity chef/partner Richard Blais (star of “Top Chef” and other many other TV shows). Their first project was Juniper & Ivy, a fine-dining restaurant in Little Italy that’s also been consistently top-rated since it opened in 2014.

Health-conscious Encinitas may seem an unlikely spot for a fast-casual fried chicken outlet, but Crack Shack is no KFC. The top-selling item is a 5-piece, cooked-to-order tray of bone-in fried chicken priced at $15. The chicken is all organic, free range and never frozen, sourced from Southern California farms (same goes for the eggs).

Blais, who lives in Del Mar with his wife and two daughters, said customers are willing to set aside their diets and pay a little more for good ingredients.

“Diners can say it’s farm fresh here,” Blais said. “It’s casual but you’re getting better ingredients.”

Encinitas resident Ken Schulenburg has driven his family to Little Italy to eat at Crack Shack, and they’re all excited they can now get their chicken fix a lot closer to home.

“I grew up on fried chicken in Kentucky and theirs is really good,” Schulenburg said. “It’s really moist inside and I like the crust on the outside. I think it’s great they’re coming here. Encinitas thrives on new concepts and I think it will be a big success.”

Like the Little Italy original, the Encinitas Crack Shack has a walk-up order menu, picnic-style seating, an open-air layout, a full bar, patio seating and a giant fiberglass chicken. The Encinitas location also has a children’s sandbox area, which replaces the bocce ball court in Little Italy.

The bocce court was a nod to the community’s Italian roots, but it was also a space-filler. Executive Chef Jon Sloan, who developed the Crack Shack menu, said nobody knew if the concept would work, so they were afraid to install too many chairs.

Instead, the Crack Shack had a line around the block on its opening morning and by the end of that day had sold out all the food it expected to last five days. While Crack Shack has been a retail success story, there have been some adjustments over the past 16 months.

The team assumed the restaurant would have a steady flow of business all day (hours are generally 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.), but the majority of customers come for dinner. Ideas for an expanded dessert menu were shelved when the company realized diners were too full after their meals.

The Little Italy space was built without a roof, and bad weather has impacted business. And Dan Pena, who manages the restaurants, said some of the most popular items were taken off the menu because they couldn’t be prepared as consistently and quickly as necessary.

“We’re of a mindset that it’s easier and better to do 20 things as well as you can rather than 30 things that you can’t,” said Sloan, adding that the Encinitas chef team headed by Andrew Schrader all have experience working the line at Juniper & Ivy.

The 6,000-square-foot Encinitas Crack Shack is 30 percent larger than in Little Italy, with a longer bar (18 seats, with 32 beers on tap, wine and a cocktail program).

Rosen built it inside a former Coco’s restaurant, which started out as a Bob’s Big Boy in 1975. The new design, which Rosen said “has a bit of grit in it,” incorporates chicken wire, wood from an old red barn and corrugated metal walls from a chicken shed.

Originally, Rosen said he planned to remove much of the roof, but during renovations he uncovered a handsome wood beam ceiling and decided to leave it in place. Instead, the walls have been replaced with paneled, floor-to-ceiling windows that slide back to let in fresh air.

Rosen said the next stop for Crack Shack is a third location, opening in July or August in Costa Mesa at Orange Avenue and 17th Street. He has said in the past he doesn’t see the concept growing beyond sunny Southern California because of its indoor-outdoor design.

Customer Schulenburg said he thinks the open-air look gives Crack Shack a uniquely California vibe.

“They’ve created a whole experience there,” he said. “What they’re doing is different and I think it will be rewarded.”

– Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune