10654 Brant-Angola Rd., Brant, NY 14027
Web: Chiavetta's Catering Service
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"There mightn't be a dedicated Chiavetta's restaurant to visit, but the company's schedule of upcoming events shows sponsored barbecues almost every day for the next month."
Although most of Buffalo Chow's coverage focuses on local restaurants, we also love to spotlight famous local foods: wings, weck, sponge candy, and loganberry are just a few of the many links in our right-hand column. Yet until today, Chiavetta's barbecued chicken - often abbreviated "Chiavetta's" - was missing from the list, and it shouldn't have been: it's a Western New York specialty, and an interesting business concept, besides. At a time when customers expect easy access to their favorite foods at nearby locations, Chiavetta's is something very different: a transient item that might literally be found anywhere or nowhere on a given day.
The Story: If you can imagine a brand like Kentucky Fried Chicken becoming regionally famous without even operating a restaurant for the public, the story of Chiavetta's barbecued chicken starts to make sense. Now over 50 years old, the brand got its start at volunteer fire department events catered by Tom Chiavetta, eventually spreading to fundraisers held by schools, clubs, churches, and religious groups. Today, the presence of a Chiavetta's truck or sign in front of a place is considered a draw independent of whatever else might be taking place at the event.
That's because of Chiavetta's unusual business model. Rather than operating a restaurant for individual walk-in customers, Chiavetta's works primarily with event organizers, offering them either catering or pick-up services. A church, temple, or school can choose between buying fully cooked, ready-to-serve half-chickens for a little under $4 each, or pay more for larger, fully catered meals. As of this coming week, the company will have two facilities - one in Brant, NY, the other in Pendleton - that exist to prepare meals in bulk to be served elsewhere.
The Secret: There's a "secret" recipe for the chicken, but it's not exactly under lock and key. While restaurants such as Kentucky Fried Chicken don't sell containers of their "magical" ingredients or offer instructions on preparing their signature items at home, Chiavetta's takes the opposite approach: it distributes quart ($2.89) and two-quart ($4.99) containers of its "barbecue sauce" - more recently, "barbecue marinade" - to Wegmans, Tops, and other local stores, and provides easy-to-follow directions on every label. You shake the bottle to mix its combination of vinegar, salt, secret spices, and garlic - plus xanthan gum that thickens the liquid - then marinate uncooked chicken in it for at least 30 minutes before grilling the chicken over charcoal. During the grilling, you continue to baste the chicken with the marinade, then remove the chicken, place it in a pan, baste it again, cover it and let the sauce steam into the meat for 10 or 15 minutes. Simple enough, right?
Sort of. What results from this process isn't a mindblowing piece of grilled chicken - in fact, it may differ somewhat in intensity of flavor depending on who did the marinading and grilling - and those expecting a thick wing or BBQ rib-like sauce will be surprised; this is a thinner flavoring, not a paste. Yet it's almost always a crowd pleaser. Properly prepared, a piece of Chiavetta's chicken has the obvious but not overbearing taste and smell of the vinegar that so dominates the liquid, with undertones of garlic and a similarly moderate saltiness. The outside's barbecued to a nice crisp, while the inside remains tender, infused lightly with the flavor of the marinade.
The Mistakes: Over the course of many years of sampling Chiavetta's chicken at homes and events, we've had mostly good experiences, but we've also had pieces that were wildly vinegared, a flavor that one of the two of us finds too strong, but our vinegar fan prefers. Clearly, the correct amount of Chiavetta's sauce to apply is a matter of personal taste.
That said, there's more to serving Chiavetta's properly than selecting and applying the sauce correctly. Overaggressive grilling can dry out the chicken, an issue we've seen more with home cooking than at events with Chiavetta's staffers manning the grills. And the quality of the chicken also depends on additional variables - chicken fresh off the catering grill at one of these events is typically delivered to the event organizers, who may leave it sitting in a heating area for some extended period of time before it's served. That was the case this weekend, as we visited one local venue that was serving chicken from its kitchen after it was grilled behind a large Chiavetta's Catering truck: we ordered two of the half-chicken dinners at a marked-up price of $9 - including drinks, potato salad, and slaw - and had one arrive hot and tasty, while the other one was fully cooked but partially cold. They'd come off the grills at different times or had their heat maintained differently, but in any case, one was good and the other was only okay. Chiavetta's chicken should really be served quickly; within 10-15 minutes if following the company's own instructions.
The Shame: While the Chiavetta's marinade is locally entrenched, its chances of spreading much beyond Western New York are limited - at least, as it operates today. Without a real restaurant presence, the company all but depends on the aforementioned events to keep its brand vital, as well as continued positive word-of-mouth to make its marinade bottles popular in stores. Additionally, the fact that some people will experience the barbecued chicken differently - over- or under-marinated, overcooked, or left out too long after grilling - may lead some people to shrug off this legitimately nice marinade without realizing what makes it special.
That having been said, permit us a brief aside for the story of a small company called Ramly, which years ago came up with its own alternative to McDonalds hamburgers - a special "Asian taste" burger that depended on street vendors rather than non-existent Ramly retail stores for distribution. Served with a wide variety of optional sauces, vegetables, and even egg wrappings, the Ramly Burger became a huge hit with customers in its home country of Malaysia, but for various reasons, the concept barely spread beyond that country's borders.
We went out of our way to try Ramly Burgers when we visited Malaysia a few years ago, and found them different from stall to stall - not always good, and certainly not always as succulent as the ones in this video. As it turned out, Ramly's initial decision to become a supplier to mini-restaurants was therefore a novel and effective strategy to build a brand, but not an ideal way to guarantee consistently good experiences for customers. These days, the company has started to build its own locations to directly sell both cooked and frozen burgers - a way to guarantee quality and even wider availability of its products. Will Chiavetta's go in the same direction?
Our Advice: For now, there mightn't be a dedicated Chiavetta's restaurant to visit, but the company posts a schedule of upcoming events that as of today, May 12, showed sponsored barbecues almost every day of the week for the next month - most of the time at two or three locations, but sometimes, at as many as 10 different places on a single day. During the Spring and Summer months, you'll have a good chance of finding a nearby place to try Chiavetta's on any given weekend, with a lower possibility of doing so during weekdays. If you're a fan of barbecued chicken and are looking for something salty and sour rather than rich and sweet, give this a try at one of these official events before trying to grill it yourself. Vinegar buffs in particular will be pleased by the flavor.