Since the 1930’s travelers have asked why fried chicken is so popular in the Southeast Kansas region. It’s a story about a delicious, inexpensive family meal, and survival.
Six chicken houses located near each other grabs attention. The New Yorker published a feature in 1982. The Travel Channel’s “Food Wars” visited in 2010. BBC Travel went global with it in 2020. It’s even inspired a fictional novel.
Those asking “who’s the best?” miss the real story of survival, and hope.
When the first chicken houses opened to serve miners, the Dust Bowl and Great Depression had left many unemployed or earning very little. Families suffered through two World Wars.
These chicken dinners provided more than just an affordable and delicious meal. They created jobs and were a sociable and comforting escape from real hardship.
Myth: Chicken Annie & Chicken Mary were sisters
Ann Pichler and Mary Zerngast were not related.
However, Annie’s grandson, Anthony, married Mary’s granddaughter, Donna. Anthony & Donna who would go on to open their own chicken house.
- Barto’s Idle Hour: 201 Santa Fe St, Frontenac, Kansas, BartosIdleHour.com, (620) 232-9813
- Chicken Annie’s Girard: 498 E K-47, Girard, Kansas, ChickenAnniesGirard.com, (620) 724-4090
- Chicken Annie’s Original: 1143 E 600th Ave, Pittsburg, Kansas ChickenAnniesOriginal.com, (620) 231-9460
- Chicken Mary’s: 1133 E 600th Ave, Pittsburg, Kansas, Chicken-Marys.com, (620) 231-9510
- Gebhardt’s Chicken Dinners: 124 N 260th St, Mulberry, Kansas, (620) 764-3451
- Pichler’s Chicken Annie’s: 1271 S 220th St, Pittsburg, Kansas, (620) 232-9260
North of Pittsburg
South of Pittsburg
The story behind Crawford County fried chicken
When 5-year-old Ann Rehak boarded a ship with her Hungarian parents in 1904 to immigrate to America, she never could have foreseen that 110 years later, she’d start something that’s now a legend in Southeast Kansas.
For more than 80 years, one of the area’s most popular restaurants has borne her name: Chicken Annie’s Original.
That restaurant helped lay the foundation for five others, and today, Crawford County enjoys a reputation across the nation for its fried chicken and sides. They’ve been featured in regional and national media, on the Travel Channel’s Food Wars, and collectively were named one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Cuisine. Which one is best depends on who you ask.
Rehak and her family settled in a coal mining camp near present-day Chicopee, Kansas, where she began attending school. But at age 13, Ann had to drop out to go to work to help support the family.
She landed a job working as domestic help for the Pichler family at the coal mining settlement named Camp 13, also known as Yale, Kansas. It was there that she met Charles Pichler, whom she married on April 28, 1917.
The couple had four children; Wilma, Carl, Louella, and an infant, Anna Irene, who died in infancy. In 1933, Charles was injured badly in the mines; he lost one leg, and another was mangled. Again, Ann was faced with going to work to support her family. And in 1934, the legend was born: Ann opened an eatery in their three-room home.
She cooked in their kitchen and moved furniture out of the living room to accommodate the diners — mostly miners and their families looking for good, hearty fare for just a few coins.
“She started with sandwiches for 15 cents,” says Ann’s granddaughter, Donna. “It was hard to buy beer back then during Prohibition, so she sold home brew for 15 cents, too.”
It wasn’t long before Ann developed her own delicious fried chicken recipe, which uses only eggs as liquid for the batter, not milk, and two side dishes: German potato salad and German coleslaw.
Wilma, Carl, and Louella helped. They had no electricity, so they used kerosene lamps and gas lights to help them see as they pan-fried the tasty chicken in lard on a coal stove. At first, they could seat 50 customers.
Soldiers stopped by for a meal before shipping out to World War II. And they ate there again when they returned home on leave. One soldier, Louis Lipoglav, took a liking to the Pichlers’ daughter, Louella, before he shipped out to Europe. Another visit for a plate of fried chicken, and they were both sweet on each other.
On the third visit, they married, and would have two children: Lonnie and Donna. The Pichlers’ son Carl, meanwhile, also married and had a son, Anthony.
All in the family
The restaurant became a true family business and soon outgrew the house; in 1973, it opened in its current location just down the road. Today, Donna and Lonnie and his wife Janice manage Chicken Annie’s Original, while Anthony and his family manage Pichler’s Chicken Annie’s south of Pittsburg.
Also part of the family business is Chicken Annie’s of Girard, which came from the Lipoglav family — Louis’ mother had once operated it as Sunflower Chicken.
Today, the three restaurants use the same recipes and same processes that Ann used 80 years ago. And that’s why it’s been a success, customers say. The Scroggs family, of Lamar, Missouri, began driving to Chicken Annie’s Original for fried chicken each week starting in 1949. Among their fellow diners even back then were residents of Pittsburg, Kansas, Ft. Scott, Kansas, Nevada, Missouri, and Joplin.
“Once you got in, you had a plate full of chicken,” Lou Scroggs recalls. “It was always good, always good. Still is.”
Of the old guard, Charles died in 1978; his son Carl and her wife died later that year. Ann died in 1991; her daughter Louella died in 2008, and Wilma in 2011. Louis worked at the restaurant every day until his death in October 2015.
“We were the first fried chicken in the county, so I think that makes us pretty special,” he recalled last year. “We’ve always had good food and friendly hospitality. After 80 years, it still tastes the same. We must be doing something right.”
Just like the Pichlers, the Zerngast family helped start a tradition of fried chicken that makes customers salivate to think about. Joe Zerngast, a German immigrant, worked in the coal mines in Pittsburg. When ill health forced him to quit, his wife, Mary, turned to cooking to support the family in 1942. She served customers at their kitchen table. Word spread, and the makeshift restaurant outgrew their home.
In 1945, they purchased a mining camp pool hall, moved it just west of where its descendant, Chicken Mary’s stands today, and named it Joe’s Place. With 10 tables and a potbelly stove, they began churning out fried chicken meals to diners who drove from near and far. They recruited their children, Zig and Mickey, to help on the weekends.
Zig and his wife, Tootie, carried on the business, building today’s restaurant in 1966, eventually joined by their son, Larry, and his wife, Karen. Today, the Zerngast recipes endure.
Gebhardt’s also has its roots in the 1940s, when Ted Gebhardt, a WWII vet, married his sweetheart, Maycle, and took over the family farm and a nearby bar in rural Crawford County near Mulberry.
The couple transformed it as a fried chicken restaurant with the help of family members, and Gebhart’s was born.
Today, their daughter, Meg, runs the place, and still draws in a crowd from miles around for their signature flavor.
Like the others, Gebhardt’s offers a unique batter recipe, as well as the traditional sides diners in Crawford County have come to expect: German Slaw, German Potato Salad, baked or fried potatoes and bread from the Frontenac Bakery. Diners who are health conscious also appreciate the option to order something unique the Gebhardt’s introduced to their menu of offerings: Skinless fried chicken.
Frontenac native Angie Troutman, whose great-grandfather settled here to work the coal mines, has grown up eating fried chicken. Usually, her family orders Barto’s — it’s just a few blocks from their home, so is the quickest to get to when they develop a craving for fried chicken.
Barto’s Idle Hour opened in the early 1950’s as the brainchild of Ray Barto, who wanted to provide local entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. In 1965, he opened a fried chicken restaurant right next door. It became a place for descendants of immigrants from a variety of cultures to enjoy music, food, and social time.
Still today, on weekends, couples dance around the floor as polka music plays — a part of the area’s culture and heritage.
Troutman, now 38, says it still tastes the same as when she was a kid.
“I love the onion rings, the side dishes — all of it,” she says. “It’s such a tradition for our family. I can’t imagine Southeast Kansas without it.”
All of them
Crawford County native Jamie Ortolani, who grew up eating fried chicken, considers himself an expert connoisseur. If pressed, he’ll share his leanings as to exactly which one he enjoys most, but he, like everyone else who lives in Crawford County, appreciates elements of each.
“As far as the six chicken houses go, I love them all,” he says. “How can you not?”
- Bread baked daily at the Frontenac bakery has been served for decades at each of the other Southeast Kansas chicken restaurants. Some go through an estimated 150 loaves per week.
- Spaghetti, a nod to the area’s Italian heritage, is offered as a side dish with chicken dinners.
- Donna Zerngast, the grandchild of the founder of Chicken Mary’s married the Anthony Pichler, the grandchild of the closest competitor, Chicken Annie’s. At the wedding reception they served chicken, of course.
By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Andra Bryan Stefanoni is a longtime Kansas-based journalist now working as a freelance writer for a variety of publications, businesses and organizations. Since 2000, she also has worked as a freelance writer for local, regional and national publications and magazines. You can follow her on Twitter @AndraStefanoni.