The "better burger" craze is still going strong in Connecticut, but Eric Stagl thinks it's time for chicken to have its turn in the spotlight.
"Everybody loves chicken," he says. "You can do so many different things with it. … And why not? Who doesn't love the yardbird?"
Stagl, a longtime Connecticut chef, recently introduced Yardbird & Co., his new food truck, to the streets of Hartford County. He and business partner Mallary Kohlmeyer debuted the truck in Bushnell Park on May 7, with a poultry-focused menu and sides made with farm-fresh ingredients.
Stagl, a Colorado native, has lived in Connecticut for more than a decade, where he's worked for Max's Oyster Bar in West Hartford and Max Fish and Rooftop 120 in Glastonbury. Most recently, he served as executive chef at Barcelona Wine Bar in West Hartford. He decided to pursue the food truck path almost a year ago.
"This time I get to be my own boss, do what I want to do, and still work with the same kind of people I was working with before," he says. "Hartford could use some more food trucks for sure. I'm glad I got in when I did, and hopefully it'll pay off in the end."
The partners found the 14-foot truck in Pennsylvania and had it wrapped in a sharp black-and-yellow motif. The truck is equipped with two fryers, a six-burner stove, an oven and a refrigerator.
Yardbird's signature item is its chicken sandwich ($7.50,) a boneless, skinless piece of thigh meat that's marinated in white miso paste, buttermilk and rosemary for 48 hours before it's dredged in flour and fried. Toppings include pickled cabbage, pickles and sriracha honey, or fiery kimchi. There's also a gluten-free version of the sandwich, fried in a separate fryer with gluten-free bread crumbs and served on a special Udi's roll.
"We're glad to be able to have a lot of gluten-free things on the menu," Kohlmeyer says.
Other items include Asian steamed buns ($3) with fried chicken thigh (Stagl prefers thigh meat over breast meat), black garlic hoisin and pickled ramps; pickled deviled eggs and quinoa salad with assorted vegetables; and crispy, salty, fried potato wedges ($3) accompanied by "funky aiolis": truffle Parmesan, cherry pepper and seasonal ingredients like spring garlic and ramps.
The organic, free-range and antibiotic-free chicken comes from FreeBird in Fredericksburg, Pa., the partners say, and local farms, including Sub Edge in Farmington and Eddy Farm in Newington, supply fresh produce.
Stagl anticipates offering beer-can chicken, pulled chicken and possibly chicken skin yakitori, but he doesn't plan to limit the choices to poultry.
"I always love to break down a pig, [so] maybe that'll happen at some point," he says. "We're trying to get the wheels turning, and go from there. … We will definitely change it up now and then."
Yardbird & Co. found early success in Hartford's Bushnell Park, serving dozens of sandwiches each day during sunny lunch hours. The partners quickly booked visits to Back East Brewing Company in Bloomfield, and vendor space at the Rising Pint brewfest at East Hartford's Rentschler Field and Hartford's XFINITY Theatre.
Future plans include more beer fests, food truck festivals, possible farm dinners and pop-up dining events. Kohlmeyer says they would also love to get into catering.
Stagl and Kohlmeyer say they're still figuring out the workflow of the new business, "but you've got to be ready to get going, and [do] whatever it takes," Stagl says. "I'm learning new things every day. I'm learning how the truck works, and trying to make people happy."