All Greg Bruce wants for Christmas is fried chicken, from one of Auckland's most unlikely suburbs
As everyone knows, New Zealand's first Kentucky Fried Chicken opened in Royal Oak in 1971 but what nobody knows is another one opened just months later in Panmure. Panmure? Panmure! When you repeat the word enough, you start to feel its slipperiness, its lack of friction, which is appropriate because that is the feeling of the suburb itself, which has always seemed to be a place to pass through on the way to or from elsewhere, particularly the further Eastern suburbs with their improbably gentle beaches, half-hearted malls and quaint shopping villages.
That's not to say there's nothing there. Panmure traditionally offered the full range of functional services: banks, post office, hairdressers, supermarket, vacuum cleaner repair places, Rendells. Panmure's main street, Queens Rd, was a place you could get things done but it was never more than that, never somewhere you lingered or intentionally sought out. In 1971 - and for a decade or two after - Kentucky Fried Chicken embodied the essence of that Panmure.
The demographic analysis responsible for locating that pioneering Kentucky Fried Chicken ("Kentucky Fried", "K-Fried" as it was known until the slick fry-washing of its 1990s acronymisation) in Panmure has been lost to time but maybe the decision was something more mysterious and powerful than pure demography because now, almost 50 years on, by astonishing coincidence, a young married couple, philosophically and aesthetically universes distant from the glossy production lines of Big Chicken, have opened a new fried chicken restaurant with arguably even more power to change the way we view that foodstuff, barely 100m from where its non-competitor once stood. (It has since relocated a few hundred metres up the road to Mt Wellington.)
It's especially astonishing because Panmure's main street is a wildly different place now than when Kentucky Fried first opened on the adjacent Basin View Lane 48 years ago. Gone are the anchor retailers, the banks and even the Post Office. Commercial, retail and hospitality tenants come and go easily and frequently. The suburb, which has always struggled to get a hold on potential visitors, now struggles to hold on to anything. It's like it's sprung a leak. The enormous roundabout, which long offered one of Auckland's most exciting traffic experiences, has just been replaced with traffic lights. Where the roundabout was democratic in its traffic routing, the lights imply you might like to bypass Panmure altogether. The huge, vertical mainstreet-style "Panmure" sign - 1950s style, 1990s construction - which towered above the roundabout, is presumably already in Te Papa.
Into this unstable milieu, seemingly perversely, has dropped Peach's Hot Chicken, a place so hot that, earlier this year, at Auckland's Fried Chicken festival, when it was still just a food truck, people queued for more than an hour to get hold of its offerings, despite being surrounded by the cream of Auckland's fried chicken vendors, most of whom had no queue at all.
Peach's, whose young married owners Alex and Olivia, have been working from 7am to midnight seven days a week, have effectively created a social experiment to test whether a single foodstuff can make a suburb cool.
The food they make, Nashville Hot Chicken, which has made them famous, was itself made famous at a Nashville restaurant called Prince's, which now exists in two locations, the original in a lowbrow strip mall in the lowbrow suburb of East Nashville in modest premises and another downtown. Alex says the queue is three to four hours long every day.
In recent years, the Nashville hot style has started spreading like crazy, including to Australia, where Kiwi chef Morgan McGlone has built his Belle's Hot Chicken into a six-restaurant empire since its opening in 2014. Los Angeles restaurant Howlin' Rays runs an hourly wait time update on its Twitter feed. At lunchtime and dinnertime - and even at 10am - the wait can often be three hours-plus.
The chicken at Peach's is tangy, earthy, floral and complex and, like any work of art, irreducible to its component parts. Peach's serves haute cuisine comfort food and, in a world of corporate disingenuousness, it does so with brutal honesty. It offers nothing gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan. "We lean in to indulgent food; that's what we do," says Alex. "Gluten is practically airborne around here."
They thought about opening a rough chicken shack like Prince's and others in Nashville and elsewhere in the US, but then they didn't. "We decided as we were building everything, if we had the opportunity to make it nicer, we would," Alex says. Instead of concrete floors, they used hardwood. Lightboxes and wall art adorn the interior, the seating is nice. The place feels street-style cool but it also feels comfortable. You could take your family or you could take your art school slam poetry buddies. Peach's sells craft beer, but only the hip kind.
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"We turn up the jams and we try to make it a more fun, inviting area to be in," Alex says, "because that's part of it, just keeping the vibe going, because if you're waiting that long you might as well be having fun."
They worked on the restaurant for months, temporarily closing down the wildly popular food truck that had made their name, then opening the new restaurant on a Friday in October, announcing it on Facebook and Instagram with only a couple of hours' notice. Predictably, Auckland descended on Panmure and they were overwhelmed. The grease converter gave out and they had to shut early. They were open again two days later, Sunday. The queue was almost immediately out the door and round the corner. By 5pm that night, the wait was already half an hour.
Since then, the wait has started hitting an hour at peak times and the queue has hardly gone away. It's still only a few weeks since the restaurant opened and it wouldn't be accurate to say it's made Panmure cool, but it's hard to argue it hasn't made it hot.