Nashville hot chicken is everywhere, but it's still at the heart of its hometown's culture


Nashville hot chicken had its humble beginnings nearly a century ago. Now, the specialty chicken style is a national phenomenon.

The Tennessee city has numerous hot chicken restaurants competing for the top spot, as both locals and tourists flock to get a taste of the dish. At the same time, large fast-food companies such as KFC, Baja Fresh, Dave’s Hot Chicken and more are increasingly featuring Nashville hot chicken on their menus.

According to data from Technomic, a food service research and consulting firm, the Nashville hot chicken trend saw a boost at the onset of the pandemic, with a peak at the end of 2022.

From the first quarter of 2020 to the second quarter of that same year, Nashville hot chicken menu mentions saw a nearly 25% increase. It’s an even bigger increase over the past five years: 65.7%.

The Nashville hot chicken origin story

But Nashville hot chicken isn’t just a spicy new trend.

The origins of the dish are unofficially traced back to the kitchen of Thornton Prince in the 1930s, according to his great-great niece, Semone Jeffries, the CEO of Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville.

Read more: Luxury hotels move into Nashville as demand for rooms surges

As the story goes, Prince’s scorned lover wanted to teach him a lesson after a suspicious night out — and that lesson manifested in what the restaurant likes to call a “devilish” amount of spices and flavor atop a delicately fried chicken.

That recipe was soon perfected and transformed into a Nashville classic, becoming central to local Black residents’ lives, Jeffries said. The chicken is covered in a blend of spices, topped with pickles and served with fries atop a toasted slice of bread.

Though the city has changed a lot since Thornton Prince’s first hot chicken, Prince’s has remained one of the city’s classic treasures.

“What makes our hot chicken the most interesting is because of the care we put into it. We do not do things haphazardly. We cook almost to order, and we don’t usually use warmers,” Jeffries, whose mother currently owns the restaurant, told CNBC. “Everything is intentional.”

After Prince’s success took off, other local chefs in the city began starting their own hot chicken restaurants and food trucks as the dish became one of the city’s trademarks.

According to food trends expert Kara Nielsen, the Nashville hot chicken trend is a “controversial topic” because of how it’s been appropriated from its origins as a Black-owned local business. Though it began going mainstream about eight years ago, Nielsen said, Nashville boasted Prince’s Hot Chicken for decades before the broader culture picked it up.

In the last few years, a lot of foods that perhaps come from certain communities have been appropriated by mass pop culture, without proper recognition, and then other people leverage it and make money, and the people who started it aren’t getting enough credit,” Nielsen said. “So I think this is also an interesting story of appropriation from Black culture, which is why it gets very delicate.”

‘You’ve got to do it for the culture’

Nielsen credits the explosion in hot chicken’s popularity to a confluence of millennials looking for something bigger and bolder with their fried chicken and restaurants’ need to create buzz coming out of the financial crisis and recession over a decade ago.

Now, Nielsen said, Nashville hot chicken is just part of the “choice set.” She doesn’t see it going out of fashion while it still has its novelty, but she’s sure some other new flavor will overtake its popularity soon.

“People just sort of keep moving along,” Nielsen said. “So if it’s not part of your heritage, or it’s not something you ate every year for Thanksgiving, it doesn’t resonate with you in the same way as it might for somebody who’s from Nashville who grew up eating it.”

One of those hot chicken enthusiasts is lifelong Nashville resident Aqui Hines, the owner and chef at 400 Degrees, a hot chicken restaurant in the city. Hines, who started her restaurant in 2006, said she grew up eating hot chicken at Prince’s every week and developed a deep love for the dish.

“It makes me happy, it brings me joy. It’s for the culture — growing up, that’s all that we had,” she said. “I fell in love with hot chicken. I fell in love with how it made me feel. I wanted to share that experience with everyone.”

Hines describes her relationship with hot chicken as “complete euphoria,” something that drives her to share the Nashville dish with as many people as she can.

In recent years, she said, she’s noticed a lot of people around the country begin to associate hot chicken with the city of Nashville. As she travels to other cities, Hines said she’s torn on whether she’s a fan of the popularity that her favorite food has experienced.

She said she loves to travel and always wants to be able to grab some hot chicken, even if she’s not in Tennessee. But she also said she’s been disappointed by some of the hot chicken she’s tried in other places, like that at a Florida restaurant that she said was mild at best.

“If you’re going to represent it, represent it well,” Hines said. “People capitalize off of it because you can make money, but it needs to be legitimate. Seventy percent of hot chicken is not authentic — you’ve got to do it for the culture.”

Hot chicken unbound

Red’s Hot Chicken owner and chef Eric White began with a humble food truck seven years ago, and he opened his brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2020. He said his success is due to his recipe’s flavor profiles that carefully balance flavor and spice in a healthy middle ground.

White said he likes that the word is getting out about Nashville hot chicken, especially as it brings more tourists to his restaurant, but he’s focused on trying to maintain the heart of the dish as it spreads.

“We actually started the same year as Dave’s Hot Chicken, and of course, they’re the largest name now,” he said. “It’s getting the word out, and I’m getting a lot of calls from people around the country. I’m actually currently working with folks from India, Canada and Germany about starting some hot chicken-type deals there.”

While White said he has yet to try Dave’s Hot Chicken, he’s had just about every fried chicken in Nashville and has a feeling he might not like what he gets from the fast food restaurant, which doesn’t have any locations in Tennessee. Dave’s Hot Chicken did not respond to a request for comment.

At Prince’s, the unofficial original hot chicken spot, Jeffries said there are mixed feelings about the hot chicken trend. While she said it’s been inspiring to see the dish make it outside her city, she’s torn about retaining the authenticity of it.

“There’s a lot of feelings we have, and they can run from ‘Oh, boy’ to ‘Okay,'” Jeffries said. “But I think ultimately, there’s enough people in the world that this can be shared, even though they do their own version.”

Jeffries said the hot chicken at restaurants outside Nashville is an entirely different version of the dish and that the authentic recipe can only be found at Prince’s or other local restaurants.

“It’s a humbling experience to think this one little piece of chicken has now made it across the world,” Jeffries said. “I wonder sometimes what Thornton would really think right now to see his chicken move around the world — what would he say to us as we get ready for the next generation? But at the core of it, it’s still the exact same hot chicken he served.”

TUNE IN: The “Cities of Success” special featuring Nashville will air on CNBC on Dec. 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.



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