The Story Behind Gus' World Famous Fried Chicken
6 April 2017
If you haven’t tried Gus’ Fried Chicken, let their new Sandy Springs location bring you through the door. Their signature fried chicken recipe has not changed in their 60+ year history for good reason. Read all about their incredible restaurant story below.
Over 60 years ago in the small community of Mason, Tennessee, Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt created something amazing – fried chicken that could unite a community. In an era of divisive racial attitudes the residents of Mason found that they could all – black and white – agree on how much they loved Na’s fried chicken.
Such an amazing feat did not occur overnight. After experimenting for several years in a local tavern, Na and his wife, Ms. Maggie, began selling their chicken, sandwiched between two slices of white bread, out of the back door of the tavern. As demand grew, Na and Maggie were encouraged by local residents to build a freestanding restaurant. Unfortunately, the Vanderbilt’s were of modest means and could not afford such an expansion; however, generous, chicken loving locals offered to supply them with the materials necessary to build their own restaurant. Na, a skilled carpenter, built the restaurant on a piece of land he and Ms. Maggie owned on Highway 70 in Mason. Maggie’s Short Orders opened its doors in 1973. The building still stands today and still serves Na and Maggie’s amazing fried chicken.
Maggie and Na continued to serve their community until their deaths, in 1982 and 1983 respectively. The restaurant, however, remained a family affair. Na’s only son, Vernon “Gus” Bonner, inherited Maggie and Na’s priceless recipe and the restaurant they worked so hard to build, literally from the ground up. In 1984, Gus and his wife, Gertrude, reopened under the now well-known name, “Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken.” Though the name may have changed, the Bonner family continued to honor Na and Ms. Maggie’s legacy by following and even perfecting their beloved fried chicken.
You can’t keep good fried chicken a secret, and before long Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken had a following that stretched far beyond the quiet streets of Mason, Tennessee. Regional publications, including the Memphis Commercial Appeal, began featuring the restaurant in the late 1980s, and national publications, such as Saveur and GQ magazine, soon followed. In fact, in January 2001, GQ named Gus’s Fried Chicken one of the top ten meals in the United States worth flying for.
However, years before GQ’s writers took their first bite of Gus’s Fried Chicken, the Bonners found another loyal fan in Memphis native, Wendy McCrory. Wendy, like so many before and after her, simply loved Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken, so much so that she would often take the forty mile trek to Mason so that her out of town guests could enjoy a respite from the more typical Memphis fare, pork barbeque. Seeing how truly special Gus’s was, Wendy began working in the Mason location during the weekends, getting to know the Bonner family and learning all she could about their restaurant. After many years of eating Gus’s Fried Chicken, serving Gus’s Fried Chicken, and eventually cooking Gus’s Fried Chicken, Wendy opened the downtown Memphis location in November of 2001. In the years since she has grown the business to include 14 locations in 8 states with more restaurants planned.
However, no matter how many Gus’s locations open or how far across the globe they expand, Wendy and the entire Gus’s family remain dedicated to the recipes and traditions originated by the Bonners. Note the slightly sweet beans and slaw served with every meal. Gus and Gertrude perfected these recipes, allowing their slight sweetness to offset the spiciness of the fried chicken. Notice too the slice of white bread that accompanies every plate, a tribute to those original chicken sandwiches Na and Maggie served their clients over 60 years ago. As Gus’s continues to grow, we will honor these traditions and serve up some of the world’s best fried chicken. And, before you ask, no, you cannot have the recipe. As Gus once quipped, “This is a dead man’s recipe [and] I ain’t telling.”