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VOL. 43 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 11, 2019

Prince’s pilgrims disappointed to discover fire damage

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Semone Jeffries is worn out from working to get Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack back in operating condition.

-- Photo By Tim Ghianni |The Ledger

The biology professor from a small Illinois college and his family are visibly upset after pulling off Dickerson Pike onto Ewing Drive to find their desired hot chicken shack dark, disheveled, smoke-stained and empty.

It’s a mental jolt because this was their planned dining stop on their way home after the holidays. They’d figured Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack was an ideal, karmic place to frame their journey.

Jonathan and Christine Micancin had dined at Nashville’s most-famous chicken shack just a few days before, when they were on the front end of their holiday journey, guiding their 13-year-old, olive-colored Lexus SUV from their home in Central Illinois to visit family in their home state of North Carolina. They make the journey about four times a year.

“It was always my idea to go to Prince’s,” Jonathan says. “It had been on the list of things we wanted to try.”

He and his wife always are on the lookout for “something we can do in Nashville that is affordable for a family.” Prince’s filled the bill, their bellies and, in this case, their agenda for the return trip to Central Illinois’ pastoral reality.

Sometime during our conversation in the parking lot outside the smoke-damaged and closed restaurant – more on that in a second – Prince’s manager Semone Jeffries excuses herself from insurance adjusters and restoration experts inside the ghost of her chicken place and greets the prof and his family.

“We had an incident here, and we’re closed,” says the 51-year-old younger daughter of Andre Prince Jeffries, the 72-year-old matriarch whose dream it is to have her children and grandchildren and beyond carry her hot chicken – in its various degrees of heat – long into the future.

Semone has been at the landmark shack most of the time since December 28, when Prince’s literally was driven out of business after an unoccupied SUV slammed into a yet-to-open smokes, Cokes and candy bars joint two doors from her restaurant in the shopping strip and sparked fire and smoke damage.

On my visit, almost a week after that mysterious occurrence, gas and electricity – cut off because of the damage and subsequent fear – still hasn’t been returned to the half-dozen or so businesses in the strip center. The quick-shop that took the direct hit from the attacking car is boarded up with thick, plywood sheets. There’s some fire damage to that store and to a next-door nail salon. Only smoke made it as far as this landmark family restaurant.

The driver of that car was not located at the scene, and there are no police updates at the time of this writing.

The desolate scene encountered by the prof and his family the other afternoon when I approach them is, of course, far removed from what they found on their first visit, just before Christmas, when Prince’s was inviting and lively, with spicy smells of fried chicken mingling with the happy banter of staff and customers. Warmth for the belly and for the soul is really what’s sold here.

On the day of the Micancins’ hotly anticipated return for more spicy chicken served up by friendly faces of people who allow you to be a stranger once, the lights are out. Walking closer to the window, they see the furniture and most of the fixtures are gone.

Black metal letters spelling “W-E-L-C-O-M-E” – usually a bold and cheer-instilling display on the wall facing the entry door – are no longer dominant.

Instead, that happy greeting is overpowered by the disarrayed tangle of dead wires and torn insulation dangling from the openings where firemen had torn out tiles from the dropped ceiling to gain access to the area above the restaurant.

Firefighters, known for their appetites, surely savor the fiery flavors offered up by Prince’s. Perhaps this was personal, as Rescue 1 raced from Station 1, a half-mile away, and soon the first responders were met by brethren from other firehouses, according to Fire Department records.

The quick shop was a disaster, but the heroic men and women quickly extinguished the fire and fought to make sure it didn’t spread through the common ceiling above the chicken joint and other businesses in the strip mall at 123 Ewing Drive, just off Dickerson Pike, a worn stretch of highway through the heart of our city that, so far at least, has gone undiscovered by folks chanting the “It City” mantra.

Even though the world-famous hot chicken shack escaped the fire, it did sustain smoke damage, and it pretty much has to be deep-cleaned and repaired, a tedious process.

Perhaps it will be back in top shape the next time the Illinois family travels through Nashville. “My husband likes the extra hot,” Christine adds while watching her beloved biology prof at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, wander the parking lot, taking pictures of the place where he and his family had planned for many hours to make their one pit stop while returning home from Carolina.

“When we came here before Christmas, on the 22nd of December, we sat down right here and had a family dinner,” says Christine, a high school Spanish teacher, as she points toward the plate-glass windows, which, fortunately, are intact.

All the dining booths – obviously including the one where the prof and family enjoyed their spicy chicken a week or so before – survived the calamity but have been removed for now and placed in a storage facility while repair takes place.

“Can’t get this kind of chicken in Illinois,” adds Jonathan, as he pauses from his photo-snapping to check on the old man in the John Lennon T-shirt and sport coat who is talking to his wife. He notes that he and his wife are spicy chicken enthusiasts, since Bojangles’ heats things up in North Carolina. But Mr. Bojangles doesn’t dance in the hinterlands of Illinois. Besides that, chain-store hot chicken advertised on NFL pregame shows doesn’t match up to what is found at Nashville’s most-famous hot chicken shack.

These two kind educators look to the back seat of their four-wheel-drive vehicle, where Eve, 5, and Eila, 2, are beginning to express displeasure at being strapped inside the vehicle while Mom and Dad talk to the long-haired stranger.

Two-year-old Eila is the most vocal with her displeasure, since she was the one who solidified the family’s choice to return here on this gray, winter day.

When the family was on Interstate 40, she was asked what she wanted for lunch? “She said ‘chicken fry,’” recalls her dad, translating that what she wanted was a return to Prince’s. Course, that already was the plan, but parents will tell you it never hurts to get a toddler’s consent.

“She was really upset we weren’t going into Prince’s,” notes her dad. “She was ‘hangry’ about it.”

“They like the pickles and the bread,” adds Christine of her two hungry children.

“They had some chicken, too,” Jonathan says.

Christine agrees, adding the kids’ chicken was naked of the spices that have made the home of what is conceded to be “the original hot chicken” into legend, a destination for the delicacy peddled in brochures and presentations by the folks who proclaim Lower Broad to be “real Nashville” when conventioneers and tourists make their plans.

The difference, of course, is that Prince’s is the real deal rather than some big-ass, neon fabrication.

Jonathan adds the family also enjoyed Prince’s “hummingbird cake, strawberry cake and some cake or pie that is a Southern specialty. It was really sweet.”

When I offer that this is likely chess pie, he smiles and nods. “I was mostly looking forward to hot chicken, but my girls have the sweet tooth.”

Semone, a lively, wide-eyed and kind person who is charged with carrying the family chicken legend into the future, tells the prof and his family that while they are in the mood for Prince’s food, they ought to reverse course just a few miles to 5814 Nolensville Pike, where shack No. 2 is located.

“We’ve been sending people down there,” says Semone, later, adding that she and her staff have been working at that other location (near the Walmart just south of Old Hickory Boulevard in an area some real estate agents market as “East Brentwood.”)

Old-timers still lament the departure from that area a couple decades ago of a country-music-themed miniature golf course – set up on a hill overlooking a trailer park and a biker bar – where one hole included the challenge of putting the ball between two large and artfully trimmed shrubs, stand-ins for Dolly Parton’s breasts, according to the head greenskeeper back in Nashville’s hazier, simpler years. I played through, by the way.

“It’s only about an 11-minute drive,” offers Semone, as she wishes the family well. She obviously knows all the shortcuts, as it was about 17 miles and almost a half-hour for me, but I have to admit that with age, my right foot has grown far lighter. The professor and his wife decide that’s too far off course – they want to get to Illinois on this evening – so they find a substitute in the Dickerson Road area.

“We ended up getting some good, Salvadoran food, which my family completely enjoys,” Jonathan tells me in a phone conversation a couple days after our encounter. Christine, his lovely Spanish teacher wife, had a great time visiting with the staff, he allows.

While Prince’s Ewing Drive location has been the company HQ since 1989, the shack had several locations before settling into this strip center off Dickerson Pike. Most have been near Tennessee State University, in the 28th Avenue North/Clarksville Pike/Charlotte and Cedar Street locales, according to “Ms. Andre” (as employees address owner Andre Prince Jeffries.)

“It’s traveled all over the city,” she says. “It’s been handed down to whoever would take it in the family” since founded as Barbecue Chicken Shack by one of her great-uncles, Thornton Prince, back in 1936, and she says more than likely earlier than that, when “he probably sold it out of his house.” The internet has the establishment’s roots going back only to 1945, but Ms. Andre scoffs at that notion, and I believe her.

There is a perhaps apocryphal tale about how the hot chicken formula was born of philandering-fueled domestic dispute and a lover’s spicy retribution, but that’s a story for another day.

Ms. Andre says Uncle Thornton’s chicken “wasn’t barbecued,” but it was spicy, so she added the family name and renamed the place and the fare Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack when she took over in 1980.

“I’ve had it for 38 years,” continues Ms. Andre, who checks in on both of her hot chicken shacks daily, but admits there’s not much point in spending too much time visiting the “landmark” on Ewing during its smoke-damaged and gutted phase.

“I just wanted to keep it in the family,” Ms. Andre says, noting her reason for entering the business not that long after divorcing husband Kermit Jeffries.

“He still is supportive,” she adds of her long-time ex-spouse. “Never been involved directly in the business. But he’ll help if I need him. … We’re still close. Gotta stay close when you’ve got two children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. You’ve got to get along.”

But when I slip and call her “Mrs. Prince” rather than “Mrs. Jeffries,” she nods happily. “I’ve been trying to get back to ‘Prince’ since I’ve been divorced awhile.”

She adds that her dream is for the chicken shack to thrive long into the future, no matter the locale.

“The mom and pop places are just about vanishing. It’s hard to compete with big corporations.”

In fact, “Nashville Hot Chicken Wings” now are not only marketed at various shacks around the city and the Middle Tennessee area: National chain restaurants are getting into the business of offering up what is the so-called taste of Nashville. Heck, even that old, obnoxiously-white Kentucky colonel (sometimes portrayed in commercials by Reba or “George Costanza”) peddles a fast-food version.

Ms. Andre objects to the common moniker used to peddle the product. “They call them ‘Nashville Hot Chicken Wings,” she says, noting that the original tag “hot chicken” was her invention when she took over the business.

That particular gripe is one shared by a friend of mine, Allen Zirker, whose Brother Z’s Wang Shack has two locations on Dickerson Pike (one of which includes a church where he conducts services.)

As he said a few weeks ago: “I don’t know what a Nashville chicken is.”

Nashville-based violinist Sarah Holbrook, whose plays in folkie virtuoso band SHEL (an acronym for the first names of four sisters who form the outfit: Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza), knows that whatever you call them, the hot wings served up by Prince’s are the best.

She pulls her Subaru into the parking lot, near where I stand, and I knock on her window, which she rolls down and asks “what happened?” to this legendary spot. I later reflect that knocking on a car window in this part of town may be easily misinterpreted, but some say I’m harmless and seldom leer.

A lovely and talented young woman, Sarah has a couple of visitors from her hometown Fort Collins, Colorado, and she has promised them Prince’s hot chicken.

“They had a list of some things they want to do in Nashville. Today it is hot chicken and honky-tonking” on Lower Broad. Just a typical evening for those of us who call this “It City” home.

Sarah’s visitors, Alex Ruiz and Cass Poncelow, brag they got bargain Frontier flights and really are hankering that trademark Nashville food.

“Then maybe we’ll try the scooters,” says the extra-pretty violinist. OK, so visitors know us for hot chicken, our thoroughly fabricated Lower Broad honky-tonks and fleets of scooters, but at least we don’t sit on porch couches and hay bales any more.

Simone helps Sarah punch the address of the East Brentwood location into her phone, and off they go on their “typical Nashville day” of adventure. I’ll wager Broadway boot-buying somehow worked into the agenda.

Others pull into the parking lot, regulars who see the damage and drive away, and tourists, like Austin Ross from Montana and his sister, Maggie, from Oxford, Mississippi.

“We’ve been recommended,” says Maggie, of their reason for seeking out Prince’s.

“I heard it was pretty darn good,” Austin adds. “I wanted to get some before I fly away tomorrow.”

Wesley Summers, a freelance instant replay operator from Atlanta, has driven to Nashville for a conference. He’s done, but before he begins the homeward stretch, he wants to try Prince’s.

“We just got Hattie B’s down in Atlanta now, and I like it,” he says. “But my friends have told me that the real thing is at Prince’s.” He vows to catch the East Brentwood location on his way out of town.

Katrina Ware, who has a catering company in Nashville and who does a lot of work with and for Prince’s, helps Wesley get his directions to that other place.

“This is family down here,” she tells me as we watch the car turn onto Dickerson Pike. “We may not be blood, but we’re family: The customers and the workers.”

Semone is still inside the gutted building. “I thank God, we got a shell,” she points out. “Could have been reduced to rubble.” She worries about “what we can’t see” in terms of damage when the restoration is done.

“In 2006, I lost my whole house to a fire,” she says. “That keeps my nerves on edge here.

“It’s kind of like when you break a leg. You know it’s going to mend, but you know it takes time.

“We will make the place back like pretty much nothing happened….

“It’s a testament to the kind of person my mother is that so many of our friends have offered their thoughts and prayers, and they have offered to help, to work to help us,” she says. “It’s a testament to this restaurant.”

It’s also, though she won’t say this, a testament to this kind woman. “I know it’s not me. It’s beyond me. It’s beyond my children,” Semone says, adding her main goal is to “make sure (the legacy) continues to grow and prosper” until the next generation takes over.

She has three children, Brittany, 29, McKinlee, 17 and Jace, 12, all of whom she’d welcome into the hot chicken business.

But she’s counting on Jace. “He says ‘I’m goin’ to the NBA and I’m gonna own my Granny’s chicken shack.’ He is a good athlete….” And he loves his Granny.

A broad smile brightens Semone’s tired face. “When I leave this earth, I want to leave something behind that was left for me.”

I think about what Ms. Andre had told me; that the destruction “was a professional job. Somebody tied a brick to the accelerator,” sending the car crashing into that strip center quick shop.

And I wonder what type of legacy that person is leaving behind.

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