Mrs. Venetta has heard the same question over and over again, ever since the news came out that Piggly Wiggly is selling about a dozen of its local stores.
What’s going to happen to Mrs. Mac’s fried chicken?
She gets it from her neighbors, her friends and the customers who come into Piggly Wiggly No. 1 on Meeting Street. Often these groups intersect because, let’s face it, we are all brothers and sisters in fried chicken.
“Everybody wants to know if this is going to change the hot line — it’s an icon,” Mrs. Venetta Seels says. “Mrs. Mac’s chicken is the reason they shop here.”
In the South, fried chicken is an art, a sport, even a religion. Great chicken is worth its weight in fried gold.
For Charleston, there is no shortage of great fried chicken. You can find exceptional examples at Magnolia’s or Hominy Grill, just to name a couple of places.
But when you need it fast, and it has to be great, you get Mrs. Mac’s at the Pig.
And no one wants to see that change.
In the beginning ...
In January 1967, Nel McNaughton — a former school lunch lady — took over the deli at the Dupont Crossing Piggly Wiggly in West Ashley.
She brought her recipe for fried chicken with her.
The chicken became so popular that the Pig started selling it everywhere and, well, people ate it up. A few years ago the Pig estimated it sold nearly 400 pounds a day.
Mrs. Venetta recalls some folks coming into Piggly Wiggly No. 1 from Oklahoma, saying they’d heard of this magical fried chicken and just had to get some.
There’s no way they were disappointed.
Although the first chickens were fried in West Ashley, the old store is gone and these days Pig No. 1 feels like the home of Mrs. Mac’s. In some ways, the downtown store is like a step back in time, a place where they still announce the specials over the intercom, where people talk to you in every aisle. The staff is like family.
As Mrs. Venetta says, after the chicken, it is the people that make the store.
Joy Sistrunk and Anthony Porter can remember coming in with their grandparents, and their parents, when they were kids. Now they work the hot line.
Sometimes, they even make the chicken.
“The old recipe is hanging on the wall back there,” Sistrunk says.
It should be in a vault with the original recipe for Coke.
“If they don’t come in for anything else, they come in for the fried chicken,” Porter says. “Church groups come in and order it by the box.”
This is McNaughton’s legacy. She died in 2008, at the age of 92, but her chicken is immortal.
And the folks on staff at the Pig feel very much like they are carrying the weight of a legacy.
Keep the tradition
Bi-Lo, which is buying most of the Pigs, has made no decision on Mrs. Mac’s.
It’s early yet, and the grocery store chain is still trying to work out the details.
“Piggly Wiggly has an outstanding reputation, and we know that’s in large part due to their fantastic store associates and unique local offerings,” says Brian Wright, Bi-Lo’s vice president of communications and community. “We intend to listen to Charleston’s shoppers and build a shopping experience around what we learn.”
Locals were encouraged that Bi-Lo would retain Piggly Wiggly employees. They are, as much as Mrs. Mac’s, part of the whole experience.
Like a lot of shoppers, the employees are anxious and a little concerned, but they’re trying to make the best of it.
“I’m sorry we’re leaving the Pig, they’ve been really good to the staff,” Mrs. Venetta says. “But I’m a wait-and-see kind of gal. You either accept change or you get left behind.”
She’s right — change is inevitable. But you can bet Bi-Lo’s newest employees will stress the importance of keeping some things exactly the same.
They will tell the new owners how much Mrs. Mac’s means to us, that it’s a tradition. And in Charleston, few things are as important as tradition.
Except maybe fried chicken.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org