Co-founder of hip hop group Public Enemy and reality TV star Flavor Flav opened his new restaurant, Flav's Fried Chicken, in the unlikely location of Clinton, Iowa, at 4:00 PM on Monday. I made the trek from Iowa City to Clinton—where locals waited outside for hours in frosty weather—to see the restaurant, have some dinner, and find out how on earth this happened.
Flav's Fried Chicken appears not to have a website, so there's no way to verify the address. I drive down 2nd Street in Clinton, hoping the restaurant will be easy to spot. It is.
A huge sign shows Flav in head-to-toe orange regalia, brandishing bling rings and flashing his trademark gold-capped grimace. The restaurant is 30 feet from a KFC, and the massive, glowing FFC monolith dwarfs the backlit roadside Colonel next door.
Parked cars snake around the block. A long line of hungry customers stretch from the doors, doubling down a long wheelchair-access ramp and onto the pavement. As cars and trucks race past on 2nd Street, drivers honk and shout "Flav!".
I talk to some giddy teenagers who have Flav-signed table napkins. A mother pilots her two daughters out the door—and all three are wearing clock necklaces and the Viking helmets Flav sometimes sports.
In line, I speak with a young Clinton couple, and they seem pretty shell-shocked. "Everybody's been saying— Flav is coming," whispers Heath Dionne, a local telemarketer. "Nobody believed it," says Kayla Archer, his girlfriend.
When's the last time a Clinton restaurant had a line out the door? "Never," Archer says.
I walk over to KFC. Inside, a lone couple lounges at a booth. I introduce myself as a reporter to a fry cook, and the interview is immediately over: "We don't have any comment!" he bellows, and scurries back into the kitchen. When the manager materializes, I ask if he can answer a few questions about the new neighbors. "Sorry, I'm just too busy right now," he says, and storms into the kitchen to make more food for no one.
Inside FFC, I've learned that the building was once a Long John Silver's, which explains its familiar fast-food layout. Aside from that, it couldn't be more different.
Flav is in the corner, hugging and gesticulating and grinning for flashbulbs. It's clear he's taken it upon himself to meet his guests one at a time. It's difficult to move, and there are enormous men in yellow "Security" T-shirts.
From a corner, an MC hypes the food, disses the Colonel, and blasts expletive-laced jams at head-pounding volume. The walls are painted marigold and feature half a dozen meter-high portraits of Flav, sprayed on in vivid airbrush colors. They bring Flav's outsize personality to life with movement and flair, canonizing him in various guises like a doll: basketball jersey Flav, Viking helmet Flav, on-the-mic Flav, crowned king Flav.
The artist, Edwin Bailey, might be the night's biggest success story. He's lived in Clinton much of his life, and sells custom airbrush tees and shoes. "It's a dream come true, man," he tells me. "Everybody's going bananas." He introduces me to his mother, Pamelia, who's over the moon. She recalls how she used take little Edwin to see the Mission District murals in San Francisco when he was younger, how much it inspired him.
Dinnertime. In addition to chicken, FFC serves ribs ("You won't get ribs next door at the Colonel," the MC keeps reminding the crowd). There's also a long list of side dishes: "greens," mashed potatoes, fried corn, cole slaw, 99-cent wings. The chicken breast I ate was thickly battered and well-seasoned, with a good ratio of crunchy to tender. The sides are clearly an afterthought. French fries are frozen (but hand-seasoned); the mashed potatoes, instant. I'd hoped, with all the Colonel-bashing going on, for some hand-made love. The greens or mac and cheese might have been better, but they'd already sold out.
From time to time, Flav escapes to go "season the chicken." Though he can be seen in the kitchen from time to time, he also seems to disappear out the back of the restaurant.
NEXT: How FFC came to Clinton, and the author talks with Flav himself
In the brightly-lit kitchen, I speak with Nick Cimino, the restaurant's manager, who also owns Mama Cimino's Pizza next door. His friends call him Nick-at-Nite, and Bailey has done a large-sized portrait of him on one of the walls.
FFC started with Cimino's brother, Pete, a close friend of Flav's. "One day, my brother went to Flav's house," he told me, "and Flav was frying up chicken. My brother, he had a piece of it, and said—'man, I got to start selling this out of the restaurant!'" Pete Cimino owns a Mama Cimino's location in Las Vegas. "So they started selling Flav's chicken at the restaurant—strictly 99 cent wings—and they did really well."
"I had a taste of it," he continues, "and me and Flav really kicked it off. We became like brothers. And when I tasted his chicken, I said—'Flav, I'm going back. And I'm going to build a spot in my town. I think it'll be good for the people, good for the community, good for the area—in Clinton, we need something like this."
When I ask him about KFC, he takes a softer line than the diss-slinging MC. "I have a lot of respect for the Colonel," Cimino says. "He's been around a long time. But competition never hurts."
Flav returns and snatches the microphone from the MC. "I just want to thank everybody for coming down and being part of this historical event," he shouts. "Welcome to FFC!" Fans shout "We love you!" "I love you too," Flav snickers, and then launches into a long, hyped-up speech.
Flav starts handing out orders, calling ticket numbers. "189," he says, and passes a sack to someone. Then he gets order 187 and laughs. "187 on an undercover cop," he shouts, referencing the often-cited L.A. law enforcement code for murder.
The restaurant runs out of chicken.
"We kind of ran out of chicken a little early tonight," Flav says. "When my chicken goes out, it's got to be right. I don't just give away anything to make a fast buck. The taste inside of the food is very important. So, we're gonna get it on tomorrow with some fresh pieces, and the whole nine." He thanks everyone for being so hungry, and reminds them there's still plenty of ribs.
In the back of the restaurant, I ask Flav if he has time for a few questions. He lifts his clock pendant. "I got time," he says, pointing at the clock face.
How is FFC different from KFC?
"The secret is putting love into your food," he says. "I season the meat first, then I let the meat season the breading." He won't tell me what's in the seasoning, guarding the ingredients as a kind of trade secret. "You can go to the Colonel, you can ask him what he put in his recipe. He ain't going to tell you," he says. "You can go to Popeye's, ask them what they put in they put in their recipe, they ain't going to tell you. So you come to FFC—Flav's Fried Chicken—ask Flav, what does he put in his recipe?" He pauses. "He ain't going to tell you, either."
This is when it's clear to me that, despite all the handshakes, despite the wings Flav's seasoned by hand, he's actually grooming FFC to be a huge franchise.
I ask him about his plans. "It's going to be a national chain. All I want this franchise to do is just be bigger and stay successful." How long, I ask, before we start seeing FFCs on highways across the country? "Honestly, I'll say within the next year. Within the next year this is going to be huge. I'll even make use of you," he says, and grins at me, "if you want to buy into it."
I tell him I'll sleep on it.
I'd planned on asking him if FFC reflects Public Enemy's politically charged messages in any degree, but by now I don't have the heart—it's clearly a business venture foremost, not a humanitarian endeavor. Still, Flav does seem sincerely invested in Clinton, Iowa.
He speaks fondly of his first visit, in 1987, with Public Enemy, and he's grateful to the town for supporting FFC's launch. He's happy to get some love from the locals. "The warm welcome I got from the mayor today, from the chamber of commerce, was amazing, outstanding," he says. "I'm home. I'm gonna end up calling this home—you watch."
By the end of the conversation, he's hugging me and calling me "Killa Joe." We shake hands, and he returns to the dining room. The crowd is thinner, but still enthusiastic. Somehow, the restaurant is serving chicken again. When I walk out to the parking lot, there's a strange item on the wheelchair ramp: a smashed-in KFC chicken bucket, torn and trampled by FFC fans.
For 51-year-old Flav, it's always 4:30—at least, that was the time his huge clock pendant read throughout Monday night. Here's how my minutes went.