A bright orange sign posted outside the storefront on Main Street in Norman brings color to the dark windows of the red brick shop.
If not for the sign, passersby might assume the empty storefront is the shell of another local business lost to the economic depression of COVID-19, but the situation surrounding the empty bay is quite the opposite.
While three percent of all American restaurants have been lost in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the dining space at 214 E. Main St. won’t be dormant for much longer. Soon, the smell of Nashville hot chicken will be wafting through the building’s rafters, providing a taste of Tennessee to the Norman community.
Marc and Jenny Dunham, the founders and owners of Nashbird Hot Dang! Chicken, had intended for their new Norman location to open in March or April — until their plans were halted by COVID-19.
The initial target date is long past now, but construction has resumed, and Marc said they are optimistic they’ll open by early August. The duo of creators said they are excited to invest in the community with their quality customer service and their always-delicious chicken.
Regardless of the setbacks they’ve faced, Marc and Jenny said they’re elated to start serving Norman soon.
“Scouting locations around the metro, we always knew that we wanted several locations within the OKC Metro, and Norman just makes sense,” Marc said. “It's a growing community, it's always going to be there with OU there, so it makes sense for us to be there.”
Marc, originally from New Braunfels, Texas, entered the restaurant business at 12 by working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. At first, he said it was a way to make money for things like bicycles and skateboards that his mother couldn’t afford to purchase for him.
Marc said he eventually realized he could make a living in the restaurant business and became enamored with the restaurant experience.
“There's a lot of things that surround the restaurant business in terms of experiences,” Marc said. “People do business in restaurants, people get married or get engaged in restaurants, people have first dates and all these sorts of things, all these life experiences and I really liked that about that.”
With Marc’s love of the culinary world came a determination that he said he credits with helping him through several obstacles in his career, including the one major hurdle he’s been facing in recent months with his Norman project — COVID-19.
“The one quality that I think has probably saved me more times than anything else is just being persistent,” Marc said. “I just have this persistent quality about me that if I want something ... I'm going to find a way to do it. It may not be the exact way that I thought it was going to be the first time but I'm going to get it done one way or another.”
Marc’s journey in the kitchen took him to New York City to formalize his training for four years before he landed at a culinary school in Austin, where he met Jenny, an Oklahoma City native.
As they prepared to start a family, their desire to be close to Jenny’s mother brought the couple back to her hometown with plans to open their own restaurant. Inspired by the Dunham’s love of spicy food, Nashbird opened its doors on 9th Street in downtown Oklahoma City in the summer of 2017.
Since that time, Nashbird’s success has resulted in the recent opening of an Edmond location on May 18. Now Marc and Jenny are looking to put their chicken on the map in the middle of historic downtown Norman.
Following the departure of Triple X Chicken from Campus Corner in November, Norman has lacked another restaurant with food like what Nashbird brings to the table.
With a menu featuring spicy Nashville hot fried chicken, available in tenders, wings, sandwiches and biscuits, along with a few comforting sides and cold slushies, the Dunhams have a simple but unique offering they said they enjoy and hope the Norman community will love as well.
“We like to keep the menu simple. … I don't need 1,000 things on the menu,” Jenny said. “We're going to do hot chicken. We'll do it a few ways, but it's gonna be delicious every time.”
Though the Dunhams said they are dedicated to the quality and authenticity of their food, they’re willing to admit they aren’t perfect. Marc says because his company is not a food manufacturer or a fast-food restaurant, the margin for error is greater because actual cooks make the food to-order.
If a customer is displeased with their meal, they can ask for a refund or a redo, and it will be granted with no questions asked. The Dunhams said their refund policy is all part of an initiative to become more consistent by learning from mistakes.
“We want to be consistent,” Marc said. “We want you to come in and enjoy the chicken sandwich every time you come in and for it not to be different. We're not fast food.”
In addition to Marc and Jenny’s commitment to always making great food, they said their desire to provide great customer service is also paramount.
“I always say you can fix anything but (being) rude, and so I want our staff to always provide the super best customer service,” Jenny said. “If we mess up your chicken or your french fries, we can fix it, that happens, but I need our staff to always have the 100 percent highest level of customer service.”
To accomplish that goal, Marc and Jenny said they established a customer service philosophy similar to that of chicken restaurant giant Chick-fil-A.
Heralded by Marc as the business with the best customer service in the world, Chick-fil-A is known for friendly employees who often use the phrase “My pleasure” in place of “You’re welcome.”
However, Marc and Jenny’s philosophy of customer service has a slight twist on the Georgia-founded fast-food juggernaut’s philosophy. In order to avoid the automated feeling from bouncing from nearly-identical Chick-fil-A to Chick-fil-A, the Dunhams want the employees at each of their restaurants to maintain their individuality.
“I want the same approach to customer service (as Chick-fil-A), but I also want our people to be our own people and their uniqueness to come through,” Marc said. “Rather than requiring every single employee to say ‘My pleasure,’ I want them to say ‘Thank you’, or whatever they feel like saying, but I want it to come from them. What I'm hoping to accomplish with customer service (is) ... people feel like they can be themselves, but also be very empathetic and give genuine, really caring customer service, and I hope that comes through every experience.”
To provide a worthwhile service experience, Marc said hiring the right kind of people is crucial, with optimal employees being those who have a heart for serving others. He and Jenny both said they’re optimistic about being able to find those people in Norman.
“We want local Norman people to work there and be a part of it,” Jenny said. “And another cool thing is (the Norman community) is growing, and so people that join with us can grow with us. To be able to do that for a community is also pretty cool.”
The Dunhams both said they hope to hire Norman residents and, in particular, OU students as well. In a time when the local economy has been hampered by COVID-19, those new jobs provided by incoming businesses like Nashbird could be a valuable asset to the community.
Marc said he’s also working on a discount or promotion for OU students that would allow them to eat at his restaurant on a typical college student budget. He said because he didn’t have much money growing up, he wants his restaurant to be a place where people from “many different walks of life” can come and eat good food for an affordable price.
Norman Chamber of Commerce President Scott Martin praised the Dunhams and other entrepreneurs like them, whose commitment to Norman has not swayed — even during a global pandemic.
“People are proceeding with caution as they look at expansion or new construction, so to have a restaurant like (Nashbird) who’s committed to Norman is very encouraging, and we’re going to welcome them with open arms,” Martin said. “I think it’s great that they’re willing to commit to us and our community. Likewise, we will commit to them.”
While their latest endeavor hasn’t gone entirely according to plan, Marc and Jenny will soon cut the ribbon on the newest addition to Norman’s fraternity of restaurants.
“We’re super excited to come to Norman,” Jenny said. “It’ll be a fun, different energy than we have in downtown (Oklahoma City), but I think it’s going to be awesome.”
When asked what he ultimately hopes to gain from the arrival of his Norman location, Marc’s answer was simple:
“My wife and I and my partners are excited to bring hot chicken to Norman, grow into the community, be a part of the community, help serve the community and be there for people when they're happy, when they're sad — just be a part of their life and make some memories with them.” Marc said. “That's our number one goal.”