Think back to your fondest food memories from childhood. One of them is most likely the chicken that was the centerpiece of the family table. Oakland’s acclaimed restaurateur Matt Horn looks at his own yard bird memories with reverence. “Chicken is soul. Chicken is love. It always takes me back to thinking about my grandparents or my grandmother,” says Horn, owner of Kowbird and Horn Barbecue. “I wanted to create a concept that paid tribute to chicken. That’s what Kowbird is.”
Making Memorable Chicken
Horn remembers all the attention his mother gave every preparation of the roasted, fried or smothered chicken he ate growing up. “She was cooking from a place of love and what she grew up on. When I look back on the really great fried chicken I’ve had in my life, I think of my mother and grandmother. They would just get in there and throw down,” he says.
Memorable chicken is precisely what Horn had in mind when he started serving fried chicken sandwiches, wings and other Kowbird options at pop-ups. He moved the concept into a former diner and opened for business on January 14. “When they taste the chicken, I want them to taste the love that we put into it. We want it to be the best that we can put out. That is something me and my team are constantly striving for,” says the chef and pitmaster.
The process for Kowbird’s chicken continues to evolve as Horn and his staff test out ways to make eating it a joyful experience. It could be the brine, the buttermilk, or the seasoning blend that makes their fried chicken sandwiches and meals stand out. “Everybody claims to make great fried chicken. I wanted to take ours to a different level,” says Horn. “There is a lot to the process that goes into preparing the chicken before it hits the fryer. We’re trying to separate ourselves that way.”
One of the techniques used at Kowbird comes from what the restaurateur saw in family kitchens. “I would always see my mother and my grandmother bring out those brown paper bags.” Horn then had to explain using the bags to his staff. “We’re going to put our chicken in there and make sure we have an even coating. It’s little things like that. It is the way I would see them shake off some of that flour before putting it into the oil.”
Chicken Shack Concept
The brown paper bags are not the only thing giving Kowbird the feel of southern hospitality. The founder of Horn Hospitality Group wanted his second restaurant to make people feel comfortable and relaxed in a laid-back atmosphere. “The first thing I wanted to do was to create that true chicken shack kind of feel. We took out a bunch of lights and put old-school hanging lights in there. We changed the flooring but kept the counter as is,” Horn says.
Kowbird is housed at 1733 Peralta Street in the space occupied by Pretty Lady diner in West Oakland since the 1940s. Horn chose to retain some of the nostalgia by keeping the original U-shaped counter. He describes the images he added from the South. “The décor on the wall tells the story of Black farmers from the South. I wanted to have that imagery on the wall feel like you are reading an old newspaper. They’re very distinct images.”
The musical notes on the restaurant’s exterior hint at the soul Horn wants customers to recognize in his fried chicken. “You can come to get a good chicken sandwich and some really good fries. If you want something else, we have that as well. It’s just something that is really cool for that area,” he says.
Kowbird’s creator names the Honey Bird as his favorite. That fried chicken sandwich gets a pickled mustard seed-honey sauce. Patrons can order different variations including a Hot Bird sandwich dusted with dried, fermented chilies and the traditional Southern Bird. Other menu choices include a half-chicken order, the wings meal and a fried catfish sandwich on Sundays.
Customers looking for a vegan dish can order a crispy fried oyster mushroom sandwich with plant-based “aioli” and carrot slaw. The sides are mac & cheese, fries and Horn’s first choice, the fried cabbage with bacon and pumpkin seed vinaigrette. The restaurant offers two desserts, candy apples and sweet potato pound cake. “The top sellers are the wing plate, honey bird and the Nashville hot. And those candy apples. People love those candy apples,” says owner Horn.
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Conquering Expansion Challenges
The respect the self-made entrepreneur and his hospitality group earned with the success of Horn Barbecue did not keep challenges at bay. They have encountered the staffing issues plaguing the restaurant industry since the pandemic waned. Horn shares his thoughts on why hiring reliable workers has become more difficult.
“When the pandemic forced everyone to shelter in place, I think it made people realize the value of spending more time with family. Or they realized the value of taking more time for themselves. Now, I think people are a little reluctant to get back into the industry, or they feel like their time is better suited somewhere else.”
Horn has experienced people walking away from jobs even when offered more money. “We hire people one day, and it will be really great. The next day, they decide they don’t want to do it anymore. It’s night and day. We’ve had that with people at both restaurants,” he says.
So the restaurateur sometimes runs Kowbird and Horn Barbecue with fewer employees but with people committed to upholding his standards and attention to detail. “We’re making sure they are dialed in, taking care of and that they’re happy. It’s something we’re working on every day,” Horn explains. “People have the right to make whatever decision they make in their life, and however they decide to invest their time, we’re respectful of it.”
Another challenge Horn and other restaurant owners encounter these days is getting the quality supplies needed for their restaurants at affordable prices. The teams at Kowbird and Horn Barbecue scramble each week to find enough quality chicken and pork free of antibiotics and hormones.
It is why Horn Hospitality’s founder is actively searching for the right property to develop a farm. “The plan is to raise poultry and raise hogs as well. I plan to go out there as much as I can to be a part of the process,” Horn says. “But I’m going to have to have somebody full-time overseeing my animals and making sure they are being taken care of.” He will also need a beekeeper for the honey he wants to harvest.
Whatever problems he faces retaining good staff or procuring supplies, Horn concentrates on overcoming and not getting overwhelmed. “My family and my ancestors have been through worse, a lot worse than the pandemic. I stand on the shoulders of the men and women who made the sacrifices to get me to where I am today. I have to keep pushing forward, and even in the midst of adversity, I still have to keep my head up and smile because I don’t have the luxury to quit. That’s not an option.”
Focus on Surviving and Thriving
The Oakland entrepreneur calls his wife, Nina, a priceless component and a foundation of support for their businesses. The husband and father devotes much of his energy to the two restaurants but still makes time for family life. He usually feeds and baths 6-year-old Mattie and 5-year-old Leilani. Then Horn reads for a few hours to better navigate the waters ahead.
“I consume a lot of information. If you’re not changing, you’re not growing. We can’t rely on the things we’ve done in the past to be able to survive moving forward in the future,” Horn says.
In addition to opening Kowbird, Horn is launching a taco truck named Dalia. It uses smoked meats from the barbecue restaurant and operates five days a week. Restaurant closures, staffing issues, and supply chain delays have not dampened the Horn Hospitality Group’s ambitious growth plans. However, it has meant pausing to recalibrate projects in the works for a couple of years.
“I just think we have to rethink what the restaurant industry is going to be and what hospitality is going to be like. What adjustments are we going to make with our company and with our restaurants?” says Horn.
Reassurance comes from the lines at Kowbird and Horn Barbecue. Praise for the pitmaster’s smoked meats poured in after the opening of his first restaurant in October of 2020. Esquire named the Oakland eatery one of the Best New Restaurants in America. It also received a Michelin Bib Gourmand designation. Most recently, Food & Wine Magazine placed the pitmaster on its 2021 list of Best New Chefs in America. The recognition was more than he ever expected would happen for him. “It meant everything to me. It made me really emotional because throughout this journey, no matter how hard we tried or what challenges we faced, I kept my head down. I just worked,” says the celebrated chef and pitmaster.
Along with the hard work, Horn learned some critical lessons about not taking things too personally when employees quit or customers complain. Instead, he remains focused on his restaurant projects, his nonprofit dedicated to food equity and social justice, and his new cookbook, “Horn Barbecue: Recipes and Techniques from a Master of the Art of Barbecue.”
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“It is ministry work for me. It’s not just making a buck or opening a restaurant to make money,” says Horn. “We have a vision for building up our community. “It’s to show every little kid, the little boys and girls that look like me, that there are other options for them. If this chef achieved it, I can take what he’s done and go even further.”
Every day Horn reminds himself to walk by faith. The adversity and setbacks cannot compare to the joy of seeing customers waiting to order his barbecue and now his fried chicken. “I think on Friday or Saturday, all the benches outside were filled up. People were laughing, dancing and singing,” says Horn. “That’s a beautiful thing to see. That gives us encouragement to know that all our hard work is not in vain. It’s for a purpose.”
Get updates on Horn’s restaurants in Oakland on social media @Kowbird and @HornBarbecue.