Smile Politely

Watson’s Shack & Rail owners talk about fried chicken

It’s no secret that I am a fan of Watson’s Shack and Rail. Their fried chicken sandwich made my first Five Things, and I shared a few weeks ago when they annouced to go slushies. Watson’s closed temporarily after the Governor’s stay at home order, but now they’re back open for carryout and curbside Tuesdays through Saturdays.

I talked with owners Alec Gillespie and Ian Willette on a Google Hangout call about how Watson’s started, what other names they considered for their restaurant, and what they were doing during the closure to make the re-opening what they call, “the best Watson’s anyone’s ever had.”

The exterior of Watson's Shack and Rail on Neil Street in downtown Champaign. There are patio chairs sitting empty and a painted chicken is on the window. Photo by Anna Longworth.

Photo by Anna Longworth. 

Smile Politely: Hello! You guys ready for some questions?

Alec Gillespie: Sure.

Ian Willette: Yes, ma’am.

SP: Can you tell me your name and role at Watson’s?

Willette: Ian Willette, one of the owners and General Manager here.

Gillespie: Alec Gillespie, and I’m one of the owners.

SP: Awesome. So, can you tell me about how Watson’s got started?

Gillespie: Sean Baird, myself, and Mark were the three founding members. Ian was not an owner yet, but he was there from day one. So, Sean and I went to college together. Sean got his start with the Cracked food truck. As things progressed there, I told him, “Whatever your next venture is, I want to be a part of it.”

We had this opportunity for the space, and we created the concept around the space. The space for this trendy — I don’t know — hipster fried chicken place.

SP: I mean, I do love the jams at Watsons.

Gillespie: That’s all him.

Willette: Well, it’s a combination of Sean and I. We like so many different types of music.

Gillespie: He created the Sunday slow jam concept.

Willette: Nothing I love more than 90s R&B.

SP: Yes, I love it, too. Going back, Alec, you said you and Sean went to college together?

Gillespie: Yeah, we went to SIU. Go dogs! We grew up here in Champaign. We’re both Central alumni, so we have known each other since like sixth grade. Been best friends since freshman year of high school. That’s part of the vibe we’ve created: we want to be really community oriented.

The idea behind the name Watson’s was to come up with something that felt like it’s been there for 15, 20 years. You know? That instant feel like it’s been there. Kinda like Esquire or Bunny’s or Tumble Inn, these community establishments that aren’t just new and hip, but generations of our friends and families have been going to. That’s what we’re aiming for.

SP: Can I ask what the other names were before you landed on Watson’s?

Gillespie: Um, what were some of the other ones? Doc’s. Well, so Doc Watson was kind of an inspiration, so Doc’s Fried Chicken. What else? Crispy Chicken Society.

SP: Oh, that’s cute!

Gillespie: Yeah, or Crispy Chicken Social. We might still come up with a concept there. Who knows.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: So it must be kind of wild to think that you went from having just an idea to a building to now a full-on real restaurant.

Gillespie: Yeah, there was a lot of trial and error. Sean and I were 23 when we started putting pen to paper. We were 24 and 25 when we opened.

SP: How did you pick the location for Watson’s?

Gillespie: To be honest, it was just a matter of circumstance. Sean knew Cody, who owned the building at the time, and just presented us with the opportunity. Like, hey I have this space. I know what you did with Cracked. And, Sean played soccer with his son. That community tie.

The challenge was taking a space like Bultini’s away from the community. How do we do it without disrupting or offending anyone? People had strong roots to Bultini’s, so we tried to keep and incorporate a lot of that original design. You know, and add our own. That railing up front was repurposed. The tin ceiling was all there. We brought the original designer back in.

SP: Can you talk about the menu? How do you guys come up with what’s on the menu?

Willette: The original menu started with Mark, one of the original partners. He came up with the concept with Sean and Alec. It’s morphed quite bit over the years. We are in stride — were in stride — prior to all this. Doing great food. Our sandwiches are super popular, so we continually think of what we can do there. Focus on the fried chicken and focus on the sandwiches. We make about 95% of everything in house, so it’s finding good ingredients that are readily available and people want.

An open face sandwich with a fried chicken thigh on one side of the bun, and lettuce, pickles, and a smear of white sauce on the other bun with french fries sits in a basket with a red-and-white checkered paper. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: Watson’s is famous for its chicken. Can you talk about what makes it special but doesn’t give away any of your secrets?

Willette: One of the steps we take is to brine our chicken overnight before it ever gets breaded. We get the whole bird in, and we got a guy who cuts chicken from a whole bird, butchers it all down. Then we brine it overnight. We employ a couple other techniques, and give it that signature taste and crunch that everyone loves.

Gillespie: Our secret blend of herbs and spices! It’s constantly evolving is what Ian’s saying. Our chicken day one isn’t the same as what we serve now. We’re always looking to get better in how we do it. How to be more efficient and how to be a better product for our customers.

I think Ian and the guys are really excited for the curbside order because we’ll be able to fry the chicken to order. It’s gonna be top quality every serving. Every serving will be fresh.

Willette: That’s a great point. We have such a small space here it’s hard to do some things exactly how we want to do them. We’re working on that. The time away from regular service was really helpful to kind of figure those things out. Moving into curbside service, we’re gonna really get the procedures down, and I think when we re-open, when things get back to normal, I think it’s gonna be the best Watson’s, you know, anyone’s ever had.

Gillespie: We really haven’t gotten to take a breath. When we opened up, every single night was packed house. We were — to be quite honest — we were testing our fried chicken like two days before we even opened. So, the first six months was like, what are we doing? What’s going on now? We were young twenty year olds and a seasoned chef. Thank you to the community for sticking with us.

Two slushies, one orange and one white, sit on a Watson's bar in plastic cups with covers and straws. Two mini bottles of alcohol are sitting next to them. Photo from Watson's Facebook page.

Photo from Watson’s Facebook page. 

SP: I need to know. Who thought of the adult slushies?

Gillespie: That’s kind of Sean’s baby. Ian’s adopted it and contributed a lot to it. There’s a lot of inspiration coming from Chicago and Nashville for our concept. Honey Butter Fried Chicken, Parson’s Chicken and Fish up in Chicago. There’s Hattie B’s and Prince’s Hot Chicken, the orignal Nashville Hot, in Nashville. But the slushies? Parson’s has a negroni slushie. We were up there doing product tasting, and that combination of crispy hot bird with cool, cold cocktail in slushie form, you just can’t beat it. A cold beer and piece of fried chicken is just like heaven on earth in my opinion.

SP: What is the most popular dish on the menu?

Willette: Most popular dish is either chicken and waffles (or Chelsea’s Shameless Plea as we call it) or a lot of people like the Nashville hot sandwich. We sell so many sandwiches; it’s crazy sometimes. Buffalo Star Child is probably a close second.

SP: Can you talk about the name Chelsea’s Shameless Plea?

Gillespie: So the original concept was that we were not gonna be another chicken and waffles place. Our chef was saying that. And then, we got this facebook message from this girl named Chelsea that had this plea, this shameless plea of please please please have chicken and waffles on the menu. So finally, after the original hype was that there was a chicken and waffles place opening up in Champaign, basically were forced to adding it to the menu. And we ultimately called it Chelsea’s Shameless Plea.

Willette: With her permission!

SP: If you had to choose: dark meat or light?

Gillespie: Dark.

Willette: Dark.

SP: Whiskey drink or slushie?

Willette: Whiskey.

Gillespie: Whiskey.

SP: Can you talk a bit about how the Governor’s stay at home order affected Watson’s?

Willette: It was Friday, March 20th when the order was in place, and we decided leading up to that week, trying to figure out the right thing to do. Should we be serving food? Should we keep our employees at home? All these questions running through our mind, wondering if we would be correct to serve food at this time. So obviously, we made a decision not to.

We used that time to clean, repaint things, you know, deep, deep, deep cleaning. Stuff that is great to get done. We wouldn’t have had the opportunity without this. I think this stay in place worked. It’s flattening the curve. I’m happy to be a part of that. It sucks for business, from a financial side, but we gotta go for it. We gotta make sure we can get back to normal rather than dragging it out.

It’s tough. We’ve got employees that we want to take care of. We paid people not to work. In that first week, we gave everyone bonuses that first week. We are here for our staff. It’s of great importance to us.

Gillespie: Yeah, I think it was an opportunity. The reason we closed, it wasn’t necessarily what we wanted to do, but with so much coming at us, so much uncertainty, we just needed to take a pause to think about how do we approach serving food in this crisis in a safe and responsible way. And how does this change the landscape going forward? What do we need to focus on when we do re-open? It wasn’t just something we could do on the fly.

The only possible choice was to shut it down and really focus on cleaning, deep cleaning as Ian said, and rethinking our process. Thinking about when we re-open, how do we do it? Limited menu. Limited staffing. Proper social distancing. Proper PPE within the workplace. How do we continue to make sure our employees are taken care of? We can give them a paycheck, but they rely on tips. A lot of them do. If we’re doing curbside, we don’t have bartenders; we don’t have hosts or servers. How do we take care of these people and abide by the mandated stay at home?

It’s a lot. And how do you keep making good fried chicken and make people happy?

Willette: Yeah, and make sure there’s a business on the other side of this. How do we survive this?

Gillespie: And what is the other side? What does that look like?

When we do re-open, we’re going to be super conscientious about social distancing. Because there’s going to be some hesitation, people are concerned. Even when the order is lifted, what’s it going to look like? This time off has allowed us to really reflect on how do we proceed in a safe manner.

A togo order from Watson's: waffle fries with a small cup of honey mustard sits in a white paper box next to a fried chicken sandwich wrapped in a metallic wrapper. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: You guys are re-opening. Can you talk more about that?

Willette: Yeah, we’ll have a limited menu sticking to the favorites. Some of the popular items on the menu: Chelsea’s Shameless Plea will be available. Almost all the sandwiches from our sandwich menu. We’re doing a Family Dinner pack. We did that for the first week we were opened for to-go, and it seemed to be pretty popular. You come in and pick up food to feed a family of four for $50.

In addition to that, we’ve got new procedures. Guidance from CDC and CUPHD as far as what we should be doing extra from what we usually do. Restaurants are typically one of the safer places to be because we’re always cleaning or sanitizing or washing our hands. In addition to that, my wife has been sewing masks for the last ten days. We’ve got a big pile of masks for everyone, and they can put them on and wash them everyday. We’ll be using gloves and all that stuff. We’re trying to be as careful as possible.

This is going to be Sean, Joey, and I all working in the kitchen. We’re going to do everything we can to make it a better experience here.

The interior of Watson's Shack & Rail: three barstools block off the dining area, the bar is empty, and the restaurant is empty. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

No dine in. Photo by Alyssa Buckley.

SP: How can people get Watson’s?

Willette: Yeah, people can just call in. We can do curbside. We have the loading zone across the street by Jane Addams Bookstore, and there’s also one spot Park Street on the corner of Park and Neil. We also can have people come in to pick up. We’ll have it blocked off, so you’re not getting into the dining room. We’ll have some blue tape on the floor for the whole six feet thing. Hand sanitizer for our guests as well, so they can be safe. Like I said, we are going to be masked up and gloved up and all that stuff. It’s call in right now.

Gillespie: We are looking into options for online ordering on our own website. Just follow the Facebook page for updates on it.

SP: Is there anything that customers can do to make the carryout process easier?

Gillespie: Just patience. Patience when you’re calling in. We have one phone line. We do have call waiting, now. We weren’t set up for this, but when you’re calling, it might take a try or two to get through. But you will get through, and we’ll get you your food in fast and timely manner.

SP: Anything share with the C-U community?

Willette: It’s really felt great the support we got the first week of doing takeout. People really wanted to come in, even more than just our regulars, people I’d never seen before. It felt great to feel the support from the community. So far, our social media has blown up with our re-opening. We’re looking forward to seeing all our regulars again and new faces. Putting a smile on people’s faces. I want to say thanks to the community.

Gillespie: Yeah, that sums it up for me, too. Just appreciation for the support and the love that people have shown on social media. It makes it worth it to do this and re-open.

Watson’s Shack & Rail
211 N Neil St
T-Sa 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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