David Lauderdale

Forget the Popeyes, Chick-fil-A war. SC’s best fried chicken is in Hardeeville

Owner Gwen Mervin, left, and her daughter, Franny Jefferson, do all the cooking at Gwen & Franny’s Fried Chicken in Hardeeville.
Owner Gwen Mervin, left, and her daughter, Franny Jefferson, do all the cooking at Gwen & Franny’s Fried Chicken in Hardeeville. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

Update: The name of Hanna Raskin has been corrected.

Popeyes declares war on the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich.

A Popeyes customer sues because the restaurant ran out of the sandwiches.

And I escaped that insanity to cling to the stove at Gwen & Franny’s Fried Chicken restaurant in Hardeeville.

I wanted to hear their reaction to being named in August to a Microsoft News list of the “Best Hole-in-the-Wall Spots for Fried Chicken in Every State.”

They were too busy to react, and this is not their first slide around the silver platter.

Hanna Raskin, food editor and chief critic at the Post & Courier in Charleston, included Gwen & Franny’s in her list of 17 places to find “The Best Backroads Fried Chicken in South Carolina.”

Gwen & Franny’s was at the top of the Best Things South Carolina list of “10 Best Places for Fried Chicken in South Carolina.”

The Southern Kitchen website’s list of “The South’s 7 best fried chicken dishes” includes Gwen & Franny’s.

It has a near perfect rating by customers on Yelp.

And Gwen & Franny’s was named the 2019 Business of the Year by the Jasper County Chamber of Commerce.

But that doesn’t mean this mother-daughter-daughter, made-by-hand enterprise on the main drag in Hardeeville is above lobbing a bomb into America’s chicken sandwich war.

They posted a mouth-watering picture of two chicken sandwiches on Facebook, with this salvo:

“While Chick-fil-A & Popeyes try to figure out who has the #2 chicken sandwich. I am going to sit this right here! Gwen & Franny’s Fried Chicken, #1 Chicken Sandwich!”

You can get a fried chicken sandwich with the bone or without, white meat or a thigh, and with the same crispy skin crunch Gwen & Franny’s is famous for all over Hardeeville.

And I doubt these sandwiches came out of a corporate test tube passed around in a focus group.

Hardeeville — “The Inn Village” on U.S. 17 at Exit 5 on Interstate 95 — got its first taste of Franny’s when Frances Jenkins opened Franny’s Fried Chicken in 1991. She retired in 2008, and her daughter Gwen Mervin has been running Gwen & Franny’s ever since. Her daughter, Frances Jefferson, works with her.

“I’m Franny Jr.,” she says with a big laugh as she places the first batch of golden fried chicken under a lamp Friday morning.

It’s a small place, but neat. Paper money from around the world is taped to the wall by the cash register. Maybe my whole world is a hole-in-the-wall, but it seems like home to me.

On Friday morning, Gwen crumbled boiled eggs by hand into what will become potato salad. She gave me a pinch of deviled crab right out of the oven, a little bit sweet with a twist of heat. On the table sit two pans of warm macaroni and cheese.

“Crack-n-cheese,” Gwen says, also with a big laugh. “They call it crack-n-cheese because they can’t get enough of it ... like crack.”

The first customer of the day skipped his usual fried chicken wings to go for one of the specials: Oxtails with white rice.

This is the “soul food” that the sign out front advertises, along with barbecue and fried chicken.

Like Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Chick-fil-A, Gwen Mervin is not dishing out her secret recipes.

But here are some of her ingredients.

Seventy-hour weeks.

A new bionic knee from standing on cement floors preparing food for most of her 61 years on this earth.

Experience in big kitchens, like the one at the Hyatt hotel on Hilton Head (now the Marriott), where she was once employee of the year.

She says the secret to fried chicken is to be “consistent.” It has to do with her seasoning, she said, and “don’t overcook it.” The skin has to be crispy.

“Soul food is a black culture thing where you put a lot of love in it,” Gwen said. “You’ve got to love doing it.”

And then there’s this secret ingredient that may or may not be part of the raging chicken sandwich war.

“I prayed to ask God how to do it different,” she said, “and He gave it to me.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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