R&D on the menu of Southern flavors at Big Chicken, Shaquille O’Neal’s fast casual
Photo courtesy of Big Chicken
When he came up with the Big Chicken concept, Shaquille O’Neal enlisted two of Las Vegas’ top chefs, Matt Silverman and Matt Piekarski, to create a menu that reflected his Southern roots. This meant turning some of the Shaq family favorites into brand signatures and developing their own versions of best sellers, like milkshakes and fries.
Lucille’s Mac and Cheese, Shaq’s mom’s recipe with Cheez-It crust, was a menu staple, but it took a bit of R&D to scale up.
“You can’t just multiply a family recipe and make it work for a fast-casual chain,” said Silverman, also managing partner of JRS Hospitality, which runs high-end restaurants on the Strip. “We start with the recipe concept and then work through many iterations until we get the end product we want.”
Like the mac and cheese, everything is made from scratch at the nine-unit fast casual — a best practice that sets the menu apart, the chefs said. For the signature fried chicken sandwich, “we developed the brine for the chicken breast, the seasonings in the breading and all the sauces,” Piekarski said.
The brisket is brined, breaded and fried to order on site. The coleslaw is also homemade and the six sauces, led by Shaq sauce, a creamy barbecue sauce, are all exclusive. The chefs worked with a supplier to perfect the sauces for volume operation.
The sandwich starts with a 5-ounce, all-natural, cage-free chicken breast — larger than the others in the quick-serve space — and tailored to a concept called Big Chicken, Silverman said. A total of seven crispy chicken sandwiches are on the menu, including the Charles Barkley, named after Shaq’s friendly NBA rival. It’s topped with macaroni and cheese, crispy fried onions, and roasted garlic barbecue aioli.
O’Neal contributed extensively to menu items, the chefs said, tasting new items and recommending additions.
“Shaq loves chicken thighs,” Silverman said. “We used the breast for sandwiches, but a month ago we launched Popcorn Chicken, made with thighs.” It is listed on the menu as “Shaq’s favorite”.
One of the sandwiches that was not on the menu was the BBQ Shaq. The build included braised pork belly and kimchi. “We all loved it, but the customers didn’t,” Silverman said.
The vanilla milkshake, on the other hand, is a fan favorite. But it took some trial and error to get the vanilla flavor that chefs were looking for.
“We wanted a Southern vanilla flavor to solidify the Southern fried chicken theme,” Pierkarski said. “We’re aiming for a thicker shake, closer to ice cream, with more fat and buttery notes.”
Chefs found what they were looking for in Scotts Bros. Vanilla Ice Cream. Dairy Southern. Instead of using milk to whip the shakes, they use frozen custard mix to make it thicker. The rich vanilla base provides a good template for variations including salted caramel, cookies and cream, and a recent LTO peach cobbler. “This flavor worked well with the vanilla and reflected the Southern theme,” Piekarski said.
Also on the sweet side is a 9-inch basketball-sized chocolate chip cookie, also developed and baked from a recipe from scratch. “It’s a popular add-on and meant for sharing,” Silverman said.
Value is very important to Shaq, he added, and these oversized items are more expensive than fast food, but offer quantity and quality. The sandwiches cost between $7.49 and $9.99, but they really fill you up and are made with the best ingredients, Silverman said.
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