Revival’s Unrivaled Success

The fried-chicken hot spot experienced a shaky start, but is now on the verge of big changes

Revival’s fried chicken. Photo by Joy Summers.

Chef Thomas Boemer can’t remember where he was when inspiration struck, but he was thinking about two things: fried chicken and the Black Crowes.

“Pete!” He calls into the kitchen during our interview inside the ’70s rec room-colored dining room at Revival. Pete Davis the chef de cuisine ambles out. “What’s the name of that Black Crowes album…?” Davis begins listing every single album the band has released. “Yes!” exclaims Boemer. “Southern Harmony and Musical Companion popped into my head and the word just came: ‘Revival.’”

“…By Your Side, Lions, Warpaint….” Davis trails off as he returns to the kitchen.

“I was thinking a lot about what the name would be and we knew it should be something musical and it just popped into my head. I texted Nick right away and he was like, ‘That’s it.’”

And with that, Thomas Boemer and Nick Rancone were one step closer to their fried chicken shack idea becoming a reality.

True Southern fried chicken

The duo, along with partner Chenny Rancone, first came together inside this very room, but for much different reasons. The restaurant then was Corner Table. Chenny had pulled her husband Nick in to work under the original chef/owner, and Boemer, the Alain Ducasse-trained chef was in the kitchen. When the business became available, they found a way to make it their own, and eventually Corner Table would move down the street to roomier digs at 46th and Nicollet.

The team considered several restaurant concepts for the original space: a red sauce Italian joint, or maybe a small Argentinean-style steakhouse. “But that was right about the time that Isaac Becker opened Burch—and they were just crushing it,” recalls Nick.

There were a million reasons they didn’t want to commit to a fried chicken restaurant.  And yet, the crusty skin of buttermilk-bathed bird continued its siren call.

“I’m incredibly picky about my fried chicken,” says Boemer, who spent part of his formative years in the Carolinas. “I ate all the fried chicken in Chicago before opening Revival and I didn’t like any of it. I want true Southern fried chicken. It’s so simple, but so few people get it right. I wanted people to taste what I was lucky enough to grow up with.”

Boemer reminisces on the particular perfume of a bubbling cast iron pan laden with bird inside the kitchen of a friend’s house growing up. The mother patiently explained to the ever-curious boy the whys and hows of making the dish properly.

Once the decision was made, the idea spread like a late fall brushfire: Fried chicken was coming. Anticipation reached fever pitch as the months of pulling together the restaurant dragged on (and on). The first inkling that they might be in a little bit of trouble came at Minneapolis’ Open Streets event.

That year, in the freshly remade Corner Table at Nicollet Avenue and 46th Street, people were promised a first taste. “People were lining up at noon,” says Rancone. Before they even started, they were in the weeds. The oil wasn’t right, the temperature was off, the skin wasn’t getting the texture of test batches and more and more people joined the growing line.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” recalls Boemer. “This was something I’d done a hundred times and it wasn’t coming out right.”

Nick adds more succinctly, “It was a shit show.”

Changes needed to be made and the oil was soon replaced with lard.

Inside Revival

Help wanted

In addition to working out recipe kinks, there was the space to contend with. The entire crew, invested in making the restaurant great, banded together to do the renovations themselves rather than spend the money on a firm that would also require investors (and along with them, more opinions.) After yanking down dropped ceilings, a bank of windows facing the street was revealed. For the first time in decades, afternoon sunlight spilled into the dining room.

Jesse Gibbs, a longtime server at Corner Table, helped Chenny handle the front of house at Revival and remembers hanging the floral wallpaper at the back of the room. Boemer remembers a late night with her, admitting there might have been a bit of beer involved, agreeing that the “van stripe” they had been talking about adding above the bar needed to happen. “F**k it—this happens now,” was followed by creating that dynamic swoosh that sets off restaurant’s unofficial mascot: the Thunder Chicken above the bar. (So named for its resemblance to theThundercats and its warrior-like profile.)

Davis, a fellow transported Southerner, was brought on board. He spoke that same language of taste memory that Boemer was trying to create in the kitchen. Corner Table’s then pastry chef Tess Bouska worked on his deceptively simple, utterly perfect pie recipes.

Eventually, there was no more preparation to be done. The fryers were installed. The recipes perfected, the Thunder chicken winked in the morning light. It was time to open.

There’s a certain amount of excitement that any restaurant can expect—especially one that had been as exhaustively covered in the press as Revival had been. Lines formed, and the people kept coming.

They had assumed that the small restaurant would likely serve 150 people a day. (And, if they’re being honest, that seemed generous.) Nick recalls watching 200 people standing there, willingly waiting on fried chicken, and he wondered, “What did we just do?”

The crew put their heads down, hired more help, begged friends to help wash dishes—anything to stem the flow of crazy and make absolutely certain that the customers never saw them sweat.

It was assumed that at some point, the rabid want for those coveted few seats would wane. “I remember the first blizzard and it was just me, Thomas, and Pete—we thought it would slow, but we were still nuts to butts in there,” says Nick.

“And everyone said we could expect a lull during the State Fair.” Who wants more fried food during the festival of fried foods on a stick? He gives a cruel chuckle, “There was no lull.”

The unceasing crowd was the new normal for the crew. “We just had to accept that this is just a really busy restaurant,” says Boemer. “I remember looking at places like that—like Pizzeria Lola. I remember going there to eat and wondering, what is it like to be this busy all the time?”

“Even in the rain and snow, people still wait. It’s amazing that we’re doing something and people really dig it,” says Nick.

Not that everyone is thrilled to wait. Cranky Yelp reviews, scathing emails—they’ve been on the receiving end of it all. “Look, it’s the most democratic thing ever,” explains Nick. My mom and dad have to wait in line.”

Photo by TJ Turner.

Striving for perfection

The most difficult challenge for the owners has been keeping the staff engaged. Nick acknowledges, “It’s tough for a restaurant like this. There is nowhere to hide. It’s anxiety-attack inducing for a server. Most places, you can take a moment and take a breath. Here, once your shift starts, it doesn’t let up.”

“People wait for two hours in line, there’s a level of hangriness involved, and on a weekly basis, someone will freak out about it,” admits Nick. And I get it! But I’ve never seen adult human beings act like this.”

They take the responsibility of caring for guests seriously. “Every dish, every piece of fried chicken, it has to be right every time. That expectation is built by that two hour wait.” Those customers can’t be let down.

The opening staff has largely stuck around with many of the key players in place since day one, including Gibbs and Davis. During those first crazy days, when there was a skeleton crew managing a tidal wave of crispy skin cravings, the kitchen would bump a little YouTube gem “Fry That Chicken” by Miss Peachez that has since become a fight song for all of them. Bumping the sound system, with lyrics cheering, “Everybody want a piece of my chicken/ Fry that chicken/ Fry that chicken,” in a hypnotic refrain.

In the past year, there have been some changes and Friday they announced the most exciting change since opening: Revival part two is about to get rolling. A second restaurant is expected to open this summer in the former Cheeky Monkey space in St. Paul.

Also, (perhaps slightly less thrilling) the addictive sweet potato based hot sauce that graces the tables will soon be available for sale. Plus, we can exclusively share that Sunday hours in Minneapolis are on the way. Beginning April 3, Revival Minneapolis will be open seven days a week.

“The pastor from the church in our backyard was asking for us to be open on Sundays,” Boemer said. So, is it safe to say that even God wants them to fry that chicken? He laughs, “I guess so.”