Melbourne's chicken whisperers
Get your free range, gluten-free chook cooked with the freshest ingredients by local people with big hearts
When Jim and Helen Hally (short for Hallyvopoulos) started their business back in 2010, they did not imagine clocking-up 40,000 followers on Instagram alone. What began from the family's need for healthy comfort food during a hard time escalated to three successful stores and many praises on social media.
"When people come across town just to try out your chicken, it means a lot. The foodie community's support has been huge for us," Helen Hally tells Neos Kosmos.
"It's all about getting to know your locals and keeping them happy. It pays off every time; the bonus is when someone drives from the other side of town just because they've seen you on social media and come to try out what everyone's been talking about."
In fact, it was George Calombaris himself who drove all the way out to Chicken Central for a whole roasted chook and praised them in an interview. We all love their free-range chicken and the difference the seasoning makes, but the only one who knows what goes in their secret gluten-free recipe everyone is talking about is Jim, otherwise known as the 'Chicken Whisperer'.
"We call him that because every morning he has a certain ritual," Helen explains. "We hand season the chickens and he plays Kazantzidi in the background, focusing exclusively on the chickens, making sure the seasoning goes everywhere. It's all about the chickens!"
How did Jim come up with this idea for a seasoning? By cooking at home. It all started when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and he had to take time off work to take care of her. The kids were four and six so at the time he had a lot on his plate.
"My background is logistics and transport," he says. "I'm not a chef, can't even call myself a home cook.
"It's funny where your life takes you. At first we used to go out to Carnegie where there was an amazing Greek-owned chicken shop. Then the owner sold it and we were left without options. But I thought 'oh wait, I can do this'."
From the moment he decided to venture into the restaurant business until the day he opened the doors of the first shop in East Malvern, Jim spent a year practicing his roasting skills in his back yard, researching products and packaging. He even went and worked for people to learn the ropes, while engaging a naturopath friend towards creating healthy and fresh alternatives to combine the chicken with.
"When Helen got breast cancer I was the one trying to find food for the family while she was recovering. I couldn't find any decent takeaway food so I took it upon myself to create a place that makes the food we wanted to be eating," Jim continues.
"It's all things you can find in the pantry. We haven't changed the formula in more or less four years."
Jim and Helen, having a daughter allergic to gluten and lactose intolerant, wanted to avoid stuffing in their chicken. Helen herself, during her treatment, realised that a proper healthy diet based on fresh ingredients has tremendous benefits in one's overall well-being. Their aim was to create some balance between the people looking for a healthy alternative and the people who want to have "that burger with the chips".
"We take pride in the freshness of our food, and all those natural flavours that go into it to enhance it," she enthuses.
"We use natural herbs and spices and products from local producers. Casual dining, family-friendly. Greek-style. A winner for us."
Meanwhile, Chicken Central was the first chicken shop to start serving quinoa and cous cous six years ago, when at the time, competition offered the same lettuce or coleslaw salad and chips on the side. Quinoa, on the other hand, was just coming into fashion, so there was a niche in the market for people into a healthier way of life.
"Not many knew what it was six years ago," Helen emhasises. "Bringing something like that into a local chicken store obviously gave it a lot of exposure. People loved it. When we don't cook quinoa in the shop they complain."
The Hallys' motto is just 'good quality food' and having seen Jim at work, I can testify that there's more to it than just good food. Apart from hand-seasoning the chickens himself, he takes the time to visit every single shop and work as if he were a simple employee, at every post. Even though he is being approached by large business groups wishing to come on board for franchising and to open up shops in big shopping malls, Jim remains wary. To him, it is more important to build on community and in-store people relationships than to expand Chicken Central, as he believes that "getting too big too soon might affect its identity and quality".
"Of course we are thinking of opening more stores, but this can be realised only after each shop is able to operate at 100 per cent, if the staff is happy and all the food is prepared in-house.
"We are adamant when it comes to compromising the quality of our food and the way we operate."
Jim Hally (Hallyvopoulos)
Jim also believes that in order for a business to succeed, the owners must allow their staff to take initiative and have space, freedom.
"Unless you give the people who work for you the trust they need, you can't go on opening new shops. That's our approach and how we manage to stay on top of it preserving our work ethic."
Letting mass production take over is no option for Helen either, who works fervently behind the scenes. The couple pay extreme attention to every detail because "you are only as good as the last thing you sold today".
Speaking of "the last thing sold", at Chicken Central there are no leftovers.
Apart from sourcing staff and fresh produce from each shop's local community, the Hallys also support their 'network' with charity. Having been through hardship themselves and being the big-hearted, bubbly personalities they are, they started ringing around organisations surrounding the chicken stores to ask them if they needed extra food.
"We found that in Camberwell the Salvation Army have a feeding place where they do cooking and offer food to people in need every week," Helen explains.
"We've been giving chickens to them from the beginning in Hawthorn. There's a lovely man, Norm, we ring him, he comes by and takes the chooks and they create all sorts of meals. We don't serve food from the day before."
Oz Harvest, Australia's leading food rescue charity, also joined via the Balwyn store, from where they collect and distribute Chicken Centrals quality meals.
"Keeping that circle going is important to us," Helen stresses. "That's why we also use the hashtag #yourlocalchickenshop – we're not a big chain. In terms of community we're all about giving back."
For more, like Chicken Central on Facebook www.facebook.com/ChickenCentralGroup and follow on Instagram @chicken.central
• 176 High St, Ashburton (03) 9885 3581
• 534 Glenferrie Rd, Hawthorn (03) 9818 4488
• 417 Whitehorse Rd, Balwyn (03) 9836 6703
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