When business owners pass the nondescript stretch of Woodland Avenue at East 55th Street in central Cleveland, most keep driving. You’ll find few restaurants and several churches near Woodland Cemetery in the transitioning area that just recently started experiencing investment. But when Senayt Fekadu noticed the lack of wholesome food and employment options, she chose to make it the locale for her next restaurant.
In 2016, the building was boarded up and unoccupied, but today, after a complete renovation, stands a clean, no-frills storefront with a modest dining room. Now more than three years old, the Crispy Chick draws patrons in to devour its prized scratch-made chicken tenders.
The business has become a fixture in the community: Fekadu feeds the homeless, mentors teens and takes so much pride in her food that she hands out her phone number inviting feedback from every guest.
“I’ve always had this love for food,” says Fekadu. “It is primarily because of my Eritrean heritage. Food is a central part of my culture and it is often the way we express our love.”
She says the pride-fueled sensation is the only Black-owned business in the area.
During college at the University of Houston, Fekadu studied business. As an immigrant “you don’t always have the choice of pursuing your passion and your dreams because you really want to make sure that you actually survive,” she says. “But serving quality food is my passion and I’ve been able to actualize it through the Crispy Chick.”
Fekadu immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. She persevered through the challenges she faced living in a new country without her parents while working at fine dining restaurants to put herself through college.
“I came to Cleveland for a job offer after college and thought it would be temporary,” Fekadu says — but now she’s here to stay. “I really fell in love with the city and the people.”
Quality customer service and quality food in this urban stretch may seem odd to some, but that’s Fekadu’s goal every day.
“I owned a Little Caesars franchise for 10 years, and it was in the inner city. And it always bothered me how customer service and the quality of food was never as good as it would be in the suburbs,” Fekadu says. “That has always been apparent to me and something I wanted to change. I believe that no matter where you are, you should have access to high-quality standards, which is my aim at the Crispy Chick.”
After selling the Little Caesars franchise in 2016, Fekadu started her next dream, a quick hibachi restaurant concept, Shoga (2016 to 2018), inspired by her Japanese travels — in the same storefront that the Crispy Chick now resides in.
Unfortunately, the concept was short-lived. The menu was too ambitious for the area, she says. But the Korean BBQ wings were well-loved, so Fekadu tested more than 17 chicken recipes before landing a new hit.
In October 2019, the Crispy Chick was born. Only six months later, COVID-19 emerged — and hit local businesses like Fekadu’s hard.
During the pandemic, when restaurants were closed down, Fekadu and just a few other employees kept the doors open, or rather, the drive-through steaming. Despite financial setbacks, she persevered.
“People love to talk about the end, but the middle is where it happens,” Fekadu says. With faith and hard work, she says, anyone can grow a successful business.
During the beginning stages of the pandemic, Fekadu came up with the idea of putting a thank you card in every order, adding a touch rarely seen at fast food spots. The card asks for any comments, positive or negative — with the owner’s cell phone number on it.
Yes, customer service is so essential to Fekadu that she encourages patrons to call her directly. “I want to be different,” she says.
Fekadu’s commitment to positively impacting the lives of other people extends even further. The business owner strives to employ and mentor inner-city youth. She recently began a mentorship program with a few teens where she teaches them the ins and outs of building a small business. She hopes to empower young Black people by showing them someone who looks like them succeeding.
After emerging from a tough two years, the Crispy Chick is booming, in no small part due to social media, word of mouth, and a well-loved menu. Hungry fans find the usuals: chicken tenders, Texas toast, coleslaw, crinkle-cut fries and the famous chicken wrap. Patrons may notice the similarities to another brand. But what keeps fans returning is the scratch-made seasonings, sauces and antibiotic-free chicken.
Fekadu’s tenders are made with tender meat — not breast — prepared with garlic and black pepper, then soaked in buttermilk overnight. And she’s proud to locally source her ingredients from Hillcrest Foods, a local food distributor, she says.
Fekadu, who owns the restaurant and raises her two children single-
handedly after their father passed away, has her eyes on the prize. Her vision is that one day there will be a Crispy Chick on the corner of every under-
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