White Fence Farm crows about renovation

Harlem Avenue chicken shack a Riverside institution

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By BOB UPHUES

It was time for a makeover.

Laura Hastert-Gardner rolls her eyes a bit when she thinks of what it used to look like - she knew all too well that behind the white picket fence on Harlem Avenue in Riverside, her family's legendary chicken shack needed a major update.

"I always said it was our dream one day to get it done," said Hastert-Gardner, sitting in one of the diner-style chairs at one of the three new tables inside the White Fence Farm takeout business at 3704 Harlem Ave. "But I had save up enough money."

In January, the windows of the nearly 50-year-old business were boarded up and longtime customers feared the worst. But on March 30 at 4 p.m., despite no advertising and no big sign out front announcing the re-opening, customers were waiting at the door to pick up boxes of fried chicken, fish, shrimp and, of course, those corn fritters.

"At 4:01, the building inspector gave the OK," said Hastert-Gardner, "and there was a line in the parking lot. We've had a steady stream of people since."

It was a particularly long wait for the customers, who were used to the store being closed in January. Remodeling started Jan. 2 and proceeded smoothly thanks to a mild winter. And while the renovation "cost me double what I thought it would," according to Hastert-Gardner, the change is not only noticeable - it looks like a brand new business.

Anyone who visited the business previously knows that the waiting area was cramped and spare. Seating for those waiting on orders was extremely limited, and the waiting area had grown dingy throughout the decades.

Now there's not only an area for those waiting on orders, there's also a dining area. Three round tables and a wood counter along the north wall allow for 20 diners. The cottage red walls are decorated with historic photos of Chicago scenes, which came from the collection of the flagship White Fence Farm, a sprawling 1,100-seat restaurant/museum in southwest suburban Romeoville.

The kitchen is also bigger and all of the equipment is new, except for the store's heart and soul - its fryers. Three decades old, the fryers every year are disassembled and cleaned by the store's manager, says Hastert-Gardner.

"Those are our bread and butter," she said.

The reason the place appears so much bigger, despite the fact that the size of the building hasn't changed at all, is that they gutted the entire structure, which used to include a rear apartment, to expose the original brick walls.

Until the January renovation, the building hadn't changed much since Hastert-Gardner's dad, Robert Hastert Jr., purchased the building back around 1964. Her grandfather, Robert Hastert Sr., bought White Fence Farm in Romeoville from its original owner in 1954.

It was Robert Jr. who hit upon the idea of the takeout satellite locations. Open limited hours and with no place for customers to stay and eat, the operations could run with a crew of four employees.

Hastert-Gardner believes the Riverside location was among the first of the satellites and is the only one of the original takeout locations - others were located in Aurora, Naperville and Glen Ellyn - still open.

That's not to say Riverside is the only carry-out store around. White Fence Farm also owns locations in Romeoville (behind the main restaurant), Joliet and Downers Grove and leases a property in Plainfield.

Hastert-Gardner started working the family business when she was 12, performing such glamorous tasks as cleaning up the Romeoville location's vast parking lot. She worked there until she was 21, when she graduated with degrees in hotel and restaurant management and business from the University of Colorado.

She went to work for Taco Bell on the West Coast, learning to manage small businesses like White Fence before she was hired by the Rubios, the fish taco kings of California.

In 2002, she returned to Chicago to take over the family business.

"I always knew I was coming back," said Hastert-Gardner, whose sons - the fourth generation of the family - also work for the business. Zachary, 17, is in the kitchen at the main restaurant, while Alexander, 19, works as a host when he's home on break from college.

Hastert-Gardner says she went away for 17 years, "because I wanted to make sure I could run the restaurant on my own."

While she's made some changes, she hasn't fiddled with the basics. The restaurant, she says, has its whole, fresh, free-range chickens, 4,500 pounds, delivered to the main restaurant, where they are quartered and then pressure cooked and delivered daily to the take-out locations, where they are flash-fried as orders come in.

The Riverside location is the busiest of the take-out outposts and sells about 4,000 chicken pieces a week, in addition to fish and shrimp. The takeout menu hasn't changed much (save for the addition of chicken strips for those who want all white meat). The only change to the menu at the main restaurant was to include steak.

"'Keep it simple' was always my grandfather's philosophy," said Hastert-Gardner. "He always said, 'Trends and fads don't last.'"

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