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FunTimes Magazine

Nashville Hot Chicken Royalty: The Head that Wears the Crown

Apr 20, 2021 09:00AM ● By Mary Hinesley

The evening is clear and crisp. A Tennessee gust of wind swirls the mouthwatering scent of fried chicken and warm spices across the parking lot of Prince’s Hot Chicken in Southeast Nashville. 


André Prince Jeffries sits at a small patio table for two outside of her restaurant, a family tradition that put Nashville Hot Chicken on the map. 


Large garage-style windows are pulled up to allow maximum airflow for diners who sit indoors. Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin” plays in the background, and the glow of the restaurant spills out onto the patio. There is a warm environment as a steady stream of customers come and go with grease-lined brown paper bags full of the fiery sensation, hot chicken. 


As we sit and chat, patrons stop in to say hello to Ms. André, and she knows many by name. These customers have been coming to Prince’s Hot Chicken for years, and they know exactly how hot to make their order.


Erika, a visibly pregnant customer, has just arrived back in town, and Prince’s is her first stop from the airport. She encourages me to try it extra hot, “That’s the only way to eat it.” 


“At this location, we’re right in the flight path of the Nashville Airport,” André says, motioning up as a plane flies directly overhead. The noise doesn’t seem to stop customers from enjoying their meals or coming back for more. 


The restaurant is about a 25-minute drive from BNA, but it’s not unusual for Prince’s to be someone’s first stop on the ground, luggage in hand and all. 


It’s Tuesday, but Erika won’t wait long to visit again. She’ll be back this weekend for her baby shower. When the shop is closed on Sunday, the community often hosts private events at Prince’s.


While we’re on the subject, André leans in to tell me customers have been known to use Prince’s hot chicken to induce labor. Something about the hot spices. “They say it works.” She laughs.


 


Prince’s Hot Chicken is a staple piece to the community, and it’s been serving chicken hot for nearly a century, first to the Black working-class neighborhood, and later, as it grew in popularity, to Nashvillians from all walks of life. Even celebrities like Kid Rock and Beyoncé have taken Prince’s to-go (Or sent someone to get it for them). Nowadays, tourists travel here to taste the chicken that started the food trend and buzzword, “Nashville Hot”. 


The first Prince’s Hot Chicken building was acquired in 1936 on 28th and Jefferson Street, and since then, the restaurant has relocated six times. 


Prince’s also has a food truck that parks downtown and will be opening a location inside the Assembly Food Hall this Spring. They’re also constructing a new building on Jefferson Street. 


“My desire has always been to get back on Jefferson Street,” André says, a tone of nostalgia in her voice. 



Diners at the original Jefferson St. location 


Here at the Southeast location, I ask André what it feels like to have cultivated not only a nationally, but now globally recognized and beloved dish.


She pauses for a moment. “It’s overwhelming. It’s over the top. Never could I have imagined I would actually be in the business.” 


The business all started with Thorton Prince, André’s great uncle. Thornton is said to have been a handsome guy who had an active love life. The origin story of Prince’s Hot Chicken is one of family folklore, passed down by word of mouth and hearsay. 


It goes like this: One night, Thorton came home too late, and his girlfriend was vexed. The next time she made him fried chicken, she used all of the spices in her kitchen to make it fiery hot. The only problem with her plan was that Thornton loved it. And so a woman scorned became a woman with a great idea. 


Soon after, Thorton and his brothers perfected the recipe and began selling hot chicken out of his window. They later secured a business license in 1936. During the Jim Crow era in the South, obtaining a business license posed systemic challenges for Black Americans. In the restaurant industry, the Princes weren’t free to dine where they wanted to or use the front door of White establishments. 


“You had to make a way out of no way, as my mother would say. We did that to survive and supplement the income, which is mainly what it’s all about.” André says. 



Thorton Prince, André’s great uncle 


André took over Prince’s Hot Chicken at the suggestion of her mother, 41 years ago. She was 34 at the time and going through a challenging period in her life after a divorce. André supported her children through working long shifts at the courthouse, all while her mother was battling breast cancer. 


“I stepped in from knowing nothing and learning from scratch. I never would have thought I’d be in the cooking business. But it’s amazing life is full of transitions.” André says.


As we continued to speak, I realized just how heavily her mother impacted André. She recounted the first time her Mom taught her how to cut a chicken, seemingly out of the blue one day, when she was a teenager who hadn’t yet shown an interest in cooking. 


“That stayed in the back of my mind as to why Mama did that. But you look back on things that happened and how it all adds up. Here I am in the chicken business. I look back on these things. She was teaching us how to survive in this world.”


André is incredibly humble and easy to talk to. She frequently ends her sentences with the phrase, “Have Mercy.” Which coincidentally might be the words one frequently hears uttered from the lips of diners as they reach for a glass of ice water to douse the fire inside their mouths. 


The community of Prince’s Hot Chicken was already invested when André took over, but she made it what it is today. André changed the restaurant’s name from The BBQ Chicken Shack to Prince’s Hot Chicken to give credit to the family and celebrate a dish she knew was special. Former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, a long-time customer of Prince’s, conducted a study where he found the Prince family was the first to fry and sell hot chicken this way, André shared. 



Prince’s Hot Chicken served on white bread with pickles 


In the last 20 years, Nashville Hot Chicken has exploded nationally and on a local level. The Music City area has more than 20 restaurants that specialize in serving the dish. 


When asked about her biggest success, André says, “My biggest success, of course, is staying open.” 


Prince’s has won multiple awards for their family recipe, which is kept secret from the public. The restaurant has been honored many times, but in the pandemic, and in the cutthroat business of hot chicken, staying open is something to celebrate. 


“It’s nothing that I’ve done but try to keep something in the family. That has been my goal. And recognize the person who started it. Those whose shoulders I stand on. I’m just most grateful. The mom and pop places are disappearing so fast due to big business.” 


This is illuminated by the glowing Chick-Fil-A sign across the street from us. I remarked on this, and André replied, “They’re everywhere.” 


I found later through my research that competition also comes from local White-owned shops like Hattie B’s, which in the past have wrongly been given credit for launching the Nashville Hot Chicken movement.  


Devita Davison, Director of Marketing and Communications at FoodLab Detroit, uses the story of Prince’s Hot Chicken & Hattie B’s to showcase the barriers still faced today by food entrepreneurs of color. 


However, through these challenges, André and the Prince family have achieved global recognition and success. 


André remarks, “Have mercy, here I am. I’ll be 75 in July. It’s been an amazing ride.” 


She considers herself to be slowing down and in a contemplative period of her life, but that doesn’t stop her from coming into the shop most evenings. Even so, I found our conversation picking at the more significant meaning and the deep roots of the Prince tradition. 


“How meaningful your childhood is. There’s a reason the good Lord gives us families.” André says. 


About ten years before she took over the family business, André was on a road trip with her brother, driving back from California to Nashville, Tenn. Something about that trip always stuck with her: a dream she had while asleep in the backseat of her brother’s car. 


“I had a restaurant, it was overflowing with people, and I was working at this restaurant. This was amazing to me. But I didn’t overthink it,” Andre remembers. In that era, the BBQ Chicken Shack was just something in the family; André didn’t spend too much time there unless it was a special occasion. 


As her brother drove, André continued to dream. She woke in and out of sleep but always returned where she left off. It was one of those rare dreams you find yourself falling back into. As if your mind pressed a pause button and then allowed you to hit play. 


The idea is one she’s found significance in years later, “It always stayed in the back of my mind. Things add up. It comes in layers. It’s amazing. That’s why I said this must have been my purpose.” 



André at the counter of her restaurant, Prince’s Hot Chicken

In the present day, André has another dream in the works, and this one may soon become a reality. André is working on opening a Prince’s Hot Chicken location inside of the Nashville International Airport. 


“They keep pushing it back after the renovation (of the airport) and so forth and so on, but that's fine with me, whenever they get ready. We’re continuing to work on where we are. Each and every day. Step by step.” 







Check out Prince’s Hot Chicken on your next Nashville Visit → https://www.princeshotchicken.com









 Mary is a millennial currently based in Nashville, TN. She studied Political Science & English at the University of Tennessee and went on to work in the NYC Mayor’s Office following graduation. She is an Americorps VISTA alum. Mary later transitioned into writing for brands and creative advertising agencies as a copywriter & blogger. (That said, she has serious doubts about late capitalism but has been known to partake in spurts of online shopping for ridiculous items- like the perfect selfie stick or that handmade candle kit she has never used.) 

Mary enjoys connecting, learning, and sharing stories. She is particularly interested in political, community, or historical pieces, and those that seek to dismantle the stigma surrounding mental health. As a white cis-gender female, she is an advocate for racial and gender equity. 

Website: www.ihailmary.biz

Instagram: @ihailmary 

Inquiries: [email protected]