In case you missed it, Columbus just became home to the world’s most subversive sandwich. If Morgan Spurlock hangs up his handlebar mustache tomorrow, he’ll forever be famous as the guy whose one-month stunt eating nothing but McDonald’s fare changed the way Americans think about fast food—or, maybe not. By now, the gag is out of the bag. But the last laugh may still be on us. Holy Chicken, his latest venture, launched its first location as a four-day pop-up amid apparently oblivious fanfare. Unlike rival restaurants, it advertised antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free fowl with unprecedented honesty. “We’re going to bring total transparency to a lying industry,” said Spurlock, between a call-and-response chorus of patrons packed before his poultry pulpit.
“HOLY CHICKEN,” he chanted—and his faithful flock followed.
If Andy Kaufman had opened a fast food franchise, it would be difficult to distinguish it from Holy Chicken. As far as the simple menu went, it seems a genuine attempt to offer a better bird for a premium price. But, you’re also being served some super-sized sarcasm on an artisan bun, with a side of social satire.
The signs were everywhere.
No, really—the signs were all over the joint.
From on-the-nose aphorisms about the persuasive psychology of “healthy and relaxed” green and “enthusiastic and energetic” orange to a snarky “SEE YOU SOON” on the exit with the disclaimer, “Most doctors and nutritionists would recommend that you eat Holy Chicken only once or twice a month to maintain a balanced diet. But that probably won’t stop you, will it?”
“Americans make bad choices all the time,” said the straight-faced Spurlock, noting the ominous warnings in friendly fonts occupying the walls. Spurlock’s old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony included representatives from Experience Columbus and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as a proclamation from the State of Ohio —presented against a backdrop of folksy, farm-to-table, illustrated insights titled “Know Your Chicken,” “Know Your Farmer,” and “Know Your Vertically Integrated Corporate Supply Chain.”I have to admit, the sandwich was pretty tasty—despite the dire and discouraging décor. I went for the “Grilled Crispy Chicken Sandwich” topped with maple mustard, pickles, and homemade slaw. The side of “Crunchy Greens” was actually batter-dipped green beans. Both were fried.
“We don’t use the F-word,” Spurlock quietly confessed. “People like ‘crispy’ and ‘crunchy’ food.”
That’s not much consolation if you worry about what you eat. Americans rarely read the fine print, and apparently they aren’t fans of larger-than-life print either. The chicken sandwich, their only entrée, weighed in at 860 calories. Add those fried green beans at 190 calories, and your total matched that of a Big Mac and large fries from Spurlock’s former nemesis.
If that realization wasn’t enough to offset your appetite, the annotated, meticulously staged mural of the same sandwich should have. Photoshop trickery is always a given—but using KY in the coleslaw to create a more marketable image could leave you feeling queasy.
The genius: Spurlock wasn’t hiding any of this, making the distinction between sincerity and chicanery difficult to tell, hard to sell, and harder to swallow. Though he described the use of real wood surfaces to “give you thoughts of nature, trees, cute little farms with barns, and other healthy stuff”—a discrete lean over the counter into the kitchen revealed an employee literally using a brush and stencil to paint charcoal stripes on the grilled chicken.
Holy Chicken claimed its food was “too good to be true.” Whether the hundreds who lined up were willingly duped, blissfully ignorant, or just playing along was an even-money bet. The hype was real, even if some weren’t sure the restaurant was. Perhaps that was the point, along with gathering a lot of footage for some future film or television endeavor. Americans care less about antibiotics, hormones, and cages than they do feeling good about themselves.
They want guilt-free fast food—disclosures be damned.
But in the days that followed, social media cried foul and the local press was unimpressed. Spurlock’s epic editorial on deceptive practices had some screaming the sky was falling without considering the moral of the story.
Columbus was invited to be in on the joke, not the butt of it. As America’s test market, we’ve seen our share of half-baked ideas. This was not one of them. There was no subterfuge. Holy Chicken sold sandwiches, not snake oil. Better yet, they sold them at a price we should expect to pay for better chicken and better wages. That chicken was all that was advertised—free from the ambiguous labels we presume are bad, but have lots of legal leeway. And those employees were paid $15 an hour, far better than Spurlock himself made during his last gig in Columbus.
The premiere episode of his groundbreaking television series, 30 Days, followed the filmmaker through the struggles of minimum wage employment. It’s no coincidence he returned here to unveil his latest project, even if some were swept up in the same cognitive dissonance behind the foods we choose everyday. Of all of the premium modifiers used to describe his chicken, “healthy” was never one of them. Presuming the rest somehow made it so was exactly the linguistic leap the fast food industry expects us to make, and any backlash instead of hilarity that ensues proved it.
Did Holy Chicken disclose in unapologetic fashion exactly what they were serving? Were you initially elated that a healthier restaurant was finally meeting customer demands, only to have your hopes dashed again? Were the sandwiches they served likely no better than those sold by nearly every fellow fast food chain? Yes? Then shut the cluck up.
Spurlock didn’t reduce cultural commentary to a crappy carnival ride. He elevated it to an innovative, interactive experience. Holy Chicken wasn’t a hoax—it was a catered performance art exhibition. Luckily, most folks were all too honored to eat it up.
To follow up on the test of the test market that was/is Holy Chicken, follow @MorganSpurlock.