Butte native Crystal Hooper didn’t grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur, but when she and her husband Ken heard the Chicken Shack at the Butte KOA campground was closing, they took a chance and decided to purchase the business.
“I really liked this place and I didn’t want to see it close down,” said Hooper.
The Chicken Shack has been a Butte institution since the 1980s when Butte’s Steele family opened the campground restaurant.
Since then, generations of travelers and Butte families have stopped by the hole-in-the-wall eatery for the fried chicken, fried halibut, ravioli and St. Louis-style ribs.
And of course they also stop in for the Jo Jo potatoes, which the establishment refers to simply as “Jo’s.”
Prior to the reopening, the Chicken Shack was closed for several weeks during 2018.
In October, Hooper and her husband took over the business from KOA owners Joe and Jessica Tice.
Hooper was working at the KOA at the time, and she says when she heard the Chicken Shack might close, she knew she had to do something.
“It’s just a Butte tradition,” said Hooper recalling memories of the restaurant. “On picnics and even the Fourth of July and stuff like that, this is where everybody would come. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s good.”
Hooper is staying true to that tradition. Much hasn’t changed at the modest grab-and-go restaurant on Kaw Avenue aside from a few tweaks, including lower prices and the reinstatement of the Steele-family recipes.
Currently restaurant patrons can get two pieces of dark-meat chicken with a side of Jo’s for $5, and if one is feeling really hungry, he or she can get a 24-pack of white chicken, a side of Jo’s and two quarts of sides for $53.95. Ravioli come in pint, quart and gallon sizes, costing $5.50, $8 and $29.
The Chicken Shack is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the winter and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer. Even though the restaurant doesn’t open until 11 a.m., Hooper gets calls as soon as she gets in at 9 a.m., presumably from regulars who feel it’s never too early to reserve their portion of fried-chicken bliss.
Sam Green is a Chicken Shack customer and also one of Hooper’s former employers.
Green described Hooper as a hard worker who was always on time and rarely called in sick.
“In this day and age that says a lot about somebody,” he said.
Hooper said the Steele and Tice families have been instrumental in helping her and Ken get their feet wet in the business.
“I had a lot of help from the Steele family,” she said. “They helped with so much — the recipes (and) coming in and going through everything with us.”
Hooper said she’s never owned a business before, so having some guidance was a huge help. Similarly, the Hoopers have retained a few of the previous owners’ employees, which has also made the transition easier.
“That took some stress off,” said Hooper, adding that friends and family members contributed too, cleaning the restaurant and helping to get things into tiptop shape.
Even Hooper’s three oldest children are getting involved, often pitching in behind the counter. One of her daughters especially loves the restaurant’s spaghetti, so much so that “she’s going to turn into a noodle if she keeps it up,” Hooper said.
Chicken Shack customers come from near and far, especially during the summertime, when the campground is chock-full of tourists. For many travelers, Hooper said, making a stop at the Chicken Shack and KOA campground is a family tradition. For Butte residents, meanwhile, The Shack is a popular restaurant for picnics and special occasions. Hooper has even received orders for weddings and funerals.
When asked where she sees herself five years down the road, Hooper said she wants to keep the business thriving and continue the restaurant’s legacy. She added that the best part of her and Ken’s new enterprise is working with employees.