The St. Louis Standards is a weekly column dedicated to the people, places, and cuisines that make our food what it is.
It’s 9:50 a.m., and Steve Connors hasn’t even finished chopping his lemons and limes for cocktail garnishes when two customers arrive at his bar. Without looking up or saying a word, he grabs their beverages and some of the menu, knowing that the latter are just formalities. These regulars – like most regular people who come to his bar Hodak’s (2100 Gravois Ave., 314-776-7292) – are so well versed in offerings that a menu is almost a disgrace. Beyond that, the reason for their being is obvious: they want chicken.
Scenes like this are common at Hodak, the South St. Louis Fried Chicken Institute, which has been serving breaded birds since 1962. Originally a tavern named Matt and Tony located at the corner of 14th and Emmett Streets, the organization was more concerned with serving as a watering hole for factory and brewery workers than with frying chicken. However, once Tony Hodak’s wife, Ellen, began bringing her fried chicken for staff and patrons to enjoy, there was no turning back. It became the tavern’s signature item, and when the husband and wife decided to buy their partner and move to their current location at the corner of Gravois and McNair avenues, it was decided that the new restaurant would have chicken.
Connors hasn’t been around for the full run, but he has worked at Hodak for 32 years. At the time he started, he didn’t have work and felt that he would like to meet his needs until he found, in his own words, a “real job”. However, from the moment he went to the place and interviewed Tony Hodak, he knew he was going somewhere special.
“When I first walked in the door, I felt at home for some reason,” Connors says. “I can’t explain it. I thought it would be just a temporary thing and I had no idea I would be here for so long.
The restaurant underwent major changes shortly after Connors signed on. In 1989, a month and a half after its launch, Charlene and Ralph Hegel bought Hodak from its founders. The husband and wife were in the restaurant business and were already looking for an opportunity to work together when they learned that the Hodak family was getting ready to retire. It was the perfect confluence of circumstances that allowed them to realize their dream of running a place together, and they put themselves all into the operation. Before they bought the business, Hodak just served chicken, fries and coleslaw; Under his leadership, the restaurant expanded its menu, offering sandwiches, salads and appetizers. They also gave the place a makeover, and eventually bought the storefront of the adjoining beauty shop and trucking company so they could expand to meet the growing demand for their chicken.
Investment paid off. According to Connors, before Hegels came on board, the restaurant did good business, but today is nothing like it. Now – at least pre-COVID-19 – on Saturdays and Sundays it is not unusual to have a line under entrances, outside doors and around the building.
“We’re just an institution and a mom-and-pop place, and I think people love that,” Connors says. “We have people coming to hockey or baseball games for graduations and funerals and first banquets and retirement. I’ve seen three or four generations of families come together, some at the same time.”
Connors credits the chicken with packing the house. Chicken comes in fresh, never frozen, and is hand-breaded with a secret recipe even he hasn’t gotten his hands on in his three decades of work. Each order heats up when you take them apart, steam comes out of each piece, and they believe a reasonable price point makes food accessible to all. However, he understood from his first day working behind the bar that Hodak was more than chicken.
“Every day, you never know who you’re going to meet and what kind of stories you’re going to hear,” Connors says. “Every day feels the same, yet different. The bar has such a friendly atmosphere. If you don’t know the person next to you when you come here, you’ll know them before you leave.”
Her coworker, Denise Price, of seventeen, chimes in as she sets her table for the 10 a.m. crowd: “It’s not just chicken; It’s tradition.”
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