The Maker of Baton Rouge's Best Chicken Also Fought for Civil Rights
Chicken Shack's Joe Delpit played a supporting role in the Baton Rouge bus boycotts that helped fuel a movement.
As of 2019, Joe Delpit will have run Chicken Shack, home to Baton Rouge's best fried chicken (and potato salad, and much more, too), for 60 years—though the mini-chain has been around for 84. He took over the business at age 18 when his father, the founder, died.
“How y’all doin’?” Joe greets customers today—many of whom he knows personally—as they wander through the flagship Acadian Thruway location. The walls of this storied fried chicken house boast a poster saluting Black inventors and another promoting Joe’s daughter’s beauty school, along with the menu of everything from smothered turkey necks to popcorn shrimp po-boys. Itinerate vendors come through selling pie and candy, which doesn’t bother him at all, even as they wander through his business that sells the exact same thing. Nearly 80, he doesn’t spend as much time in the stores as he once did, letting his children—blood-related or, like Troy, who has worked for him for 35 years, close enough—and grandchildren take the lead.
His father, Tommy Delpit, had moved to Baton Rouge from New Orleans in his early twenties and opened the Suburban Ice Cream Shop in 1935. Two years later, it became Chicken Shack. Joe was born in the kitchen of the original shop on East Boulevard, which, he says, is why no matter how many fryers are going, it “never gets too hot for me.”
Starting at age five, Joe worked in the shop—first watching the bread toast to make sure it didn’t burn, later promoted to washing dishes. By 14, he was running deliveries all over town on his bike. “He wanted to make sure customers got the food fast,” Joe says of his dad, “but I was never fast enough.” His dad told him to get a driver’s license, but he also wasn’t old enough. So his dad took him to the DMV and lied about his age. 1940 became 1939, and Joe took the truck—he still runs into trouble because of the fudged birth year on his ID. He used that truck to deliver chicken, but also to take his own place in the country’s civil rights movement.
One of the men Joe delivered chicken to was civil rights pioneer Reverend T.J. Jemison, who, in 1953, led an eight-day bus boycott in Baton Rouge that would later inspire the bigger, more famous one in Montgomery. “I would see people driving cabs or their own cars, so I started picking people up and driving them downtown,” says Joe. “I knew a lot of people had to get to work.” The work inspired Joe to get involved in politics at an early age—but it was something he was born into.
The Chicken Shack was a community place, “like a cafeteria for the neighborhood Black kids,” describes Joe. His father bought them school uniforms, fed them, and helped get them jobs. The restaurant also played host to meetings of the civil rights movement, giving young Joe a unique perspective. But even as he got involved in the movement, he recalls, “I was still waiting on tables. I knew I was making them happy, and I got a quarter or 50-cent tip.”
In 1968, Joe’s friends—including Jemison—encouraged him to run for city council. “I didn’t think I could win, because no Black person ever had,” he admits. But he won, becoming Baton Rouge’s first Black city councilmember, before moving on to be a state representative for 16 years. In office, he fought hard for fair representation of Black and lower-income people, which resulted in numerous attacks—stink bombs in chamber meetings and people calling him to tell him they were going to kill him and blow him up, using the n-word.
Despite the threats, says Joe, “The business kept going, it didn’t hurt us.” When he retired from politics in 1992, he turned his focus back solely to the business, his kids, and grandkids. His father’s recipes, which once brought the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens out for “knuckle-suckin’ good” fried chicken, have undergone only small changes.
Joe’s wife, Precious, is still the only one who knows the recipe for the chicken batter. Even though she’s semi-retired, she still produces 125 pounds a week of the mix in a central kitchen and sends it to the shops, where they mix it with flour to make the famous cake-like wet batter for the chicken. But no worries, if anything were to happen to her, he says, there’s a copy of it locked safely away. And perhaps equally importantly, his children and grandchildren who run the various shops seem to have a handle on the importance of living the community-minded ethos already passed from Tommy to Joe.
“Staffing is everything,” says Joe. “You gotta have good people.”