The Shack comes back: Former restaurant owner revives eatery for one special night
Published 12:10 am Thursday, May 12, 2022
ROCKWELL — Gripping the silver handle in his well-seasoned hands, Harry Agner jostles the basket just enough to send an array of grease droplets flying back into the fryer.
The movement is simple enough to seem inconsequential, but Agner promises that it’s critical to ensuring the battered fries turn out exactly right.
You’d be wise not to doubt him.
The 92-year-old can’t even begin to tally the baskets of french fries he shook to perfection during the 46 years he helped run the kitchen at the Chicken and Oyster Shack. From 1950 to 1996, the beloved restaurant was a culinary staple in Rowan County.
For one night and one night only, the Shack was back.
On Tuesday evening, Agner commanded the kitchen at Rockwell Cafe. He dished out marching orders and stayed plenty busy himself. Nobody had to remind him how to flour the chicken or how long to keep the fries under oil.
“Once you learn it, you don’t forget it,” Agner said.
Jason Smith, who owns Rockwell Cafe and the Hot Dog Shack in Granite Quarry, helped organize the event. Rockwell Cafe has been closed for indoor dining since the start of the pandemic, but Smith has used its kitchen for catering. He plans to reopen the cafe soon.
The cafe was filled with diners on Tuesday evening, many of them sinking their teeth into crunchy, golden brown fried chicken or dipping those battered fries in ketchup. The event was mainly for the congregation of Christiana Lutheran Church — where both Agner and Smith worship — but it was more about giving Agner one last Chicken Shack experience.
“It’s special,” Smith said. “It’s a lot of fun to see his eyes light up to do it. We’ve had a great time getting prepared, placing orders, being in the kitchen for the last couple hours and him showing everybody how to do everything. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Agner grew up around food. From a young age he worked at his father’s restaurant, called Agner’s Lunch, on South Main Street in Salisbury. When Agner was a teenager, his father left the restaurant solely in his care for an entire week. He managed to avoid burning the place down.
After graduating from high school, Agner joined the Army. He spent 23 years in the military, most of it with the North Carolina National Guard. When Agner transitioned to the Guard and was searching for a full-time job, his father asked him to help out at his new restaurant, the Chicken Shack. The plan was for Agner to work at the eatery, originally located on U.S. 29 just north of Spencer, until he figured out what he wanted to do.
“Well, I never left,” Agner said. “I stayed with it.”
The restaurant, which relocated to a new building near the Spencer Moose Lodge in 1979, was first known as simply the Chicken Shack. The “and oyster” bit was added about a decade after it opened to avoid a potential legal dispute.
“We got a letter one day from a lawyer out of Texas saying a restaurant out there had that name patented and he wanted a royalty,” Agner said. “My dad said, ‘We’re not paying nobody anything.’”
Agner isn’t quite sure why they selected oyster to join chicken on the restaurant’s branding.
“I helped choose it, but I don’t know what our thought process was,” Agner said. “That word just popped up and (my dad) said, ‘Yeah, that’s it.’”
Agner and most others still refer to the restaurant simply as “the Chicken Shack.”
The restaurant did in fact cook shellfish and other seafood. Open from 8 a.m. until midnight, the shack also sold breakfast in the morning and steaks for dinner. Some customers, Agner said, would hang around for multiple meals. Beer was a popular item, especially when the counties around Rowan County were still dry. But most people came for the fried chicken and battered fries, many of them driving in from a 50-mile radius.
“Not bragging, we had a real good reputation,” Agner said. “Interstate 85 was not built at that particular time, but we were attracting customers from Linwood, Lexington, even as far away as Thomasville, Winston-Salem, Kannapolis, Mooresville. Somehow or another, word got around and we had people coming in from all directions.”
Agner and his father worried that I-85 would kill the restaurant’s business. That didn’t turn out to be the case. The restaurant’s battered fries were a delicacy people weren’t afraid to leave the beaten path to get. Agner said the restaurant would go through a literal ton — 2,000 pounds — of potatoes every week.
“We had a 8-by-3-inch cake box and we’d fill that box full of french fries and people would come get them one, two, three four boxes at a time,” Agner said.
One man loved the fries so much that he’d fly in from Greenville, South Carolina, just to pick up a few boxes to go.
“He would fly to the airport in Salisbury and call me,” Agner said. “He’d say, ‘I want 10, 15 boxes of french fries.’ I’d have them ready for him when he got there. I didn’t cook them all the way done. What he had to do, he put them in a real hot oven and finished cooking them.”
Agner sold the famous french fry recipe to five different individuals. They each came close to replicating the texture and flavor, but could never quite duplicate them perfectly.
“One of the secrets to the french fries, you have to really peel the peeling off the potato,” Agner said. “Breading won’t adhere to a peel. What I’ve found, everybody I sold the recipe to, it cost money to peel potatoes. So, they would try to leave the peeling on.”
For some time in the early 1970s, the important job of peeling potatoes fell to Carl Haynes. Haynes has been the pastor at Christiana Lutheran Church for about three decades, but when he was 15 years old he worked for his uncle Harry Agner at the Chicken Shack.
“I came in in the morning, I peeled potatoes, peeled potatoes, cut them into fries and put them in water,” Haynes said. “When the Shack opened at 11, I started washing dishes.”
Haynes was back working under Agner’s purview on Tuesday night, doing the same job.
“When he told me he was going to do this,” Haynes said, “I told him I wanted to peel the potatoes.”
It might not have been 2,000 pounds worth, but Haynes had plenty of potatoes to peel. What started as a church event became something a little bit bigger.
“It started out primarily as church members. Then, of course, word got out,” Smith said. “There are going to be a lot of people from the town, a lot of business tonight. It’s a packed house.”
Agner relished every moment. For him, it was another chance to spread happiness through food.
The Chicken Shack’s return was a one night event, but Agner does have a new keepsake that’ll help him remember the restaurant’s glory days. A few weeks ago, Smith and Agner were told that someone had spotted an old Chicken Shack sign by a barn. On Saturday, the duo went to the barn to see it for themselves.
It took some bargaining, but Smith eventually convinced the man who owned the sign to part ways with it. Smith and Agner loaded it onto a trailer and took it back to Agner’s house.
The sign is now hanging in Agner’s garage. He’s enjoyed looking at it and reminiscing on those Chicken Shack days.