Barberton, Ohio, is an aging town in northeast Ohio that has experienced better days. Once upon a time, Barberton bustled with factory jobs and businesses. While those boon days are gone, Barberton’s famous “chicken houses” have kept it relevant and on the proverbial map.

Located about 40 miles southwest of Cleveland, Barberton hails itself as the “Chicken Capital of the World.” That’s some big squawking for a Rust Belt town of about 27,000 – but it just might be true.

Barberton’s chicken eateries (“houses”) have been serving a distinct and similar style of fried chicken based on an old recipe from Serbia since the 1930s. The chicken houses are named Belgrade Gardens, Hopocan Gardens, Milich’s Village Inn and White House Chicken. They’ve been a mainstay in Barberton and northeast Ohio for decades and have attracted generations of chicken eaters. It’s also not uncommon for foodies to travel several hours to feast on the fried chicken.

What makes this chicken so special? It begins with the cut, which is based on efficiency more than anything. Then there’s a simple and not-so secret recipe. The chicken is also fried in lard, which may seem unhealthy to some, but it certainly adds to its taste, not to mention its tradition.

Humble origins

During the Depression in 1933, Serbian immigrants Mike and Smilka Topalsky opened Belgrade Gardens and introduced a chicken variety that was butchered so none of it was wasted. Eighty years later, all of the chicken houses slice the bird nearly the same way, in 10 to 12 pieces.

“It’s cut down the middle of the bird’s vertebrae,” says Milos Papich, the grandson of Mike and Smilka, and the third-generation owner of Belgrade Gardens. “It’s not cut like a normal chicken, but it’s the way my grandfather began cutting it.”

Brian Canale, third-generation owner of Hopocan Gardens, which opened in 1942, explains the back of the chicken runs the length of the breast and thigh, and the breast and thigh are cut from the back and then split. The chicken’s back, sometimes called “chicken ribs,” contains little meat, but it is a tasty treat.

The owners pay suppliers more money to have the birds cut this way because they will never break from tradition.

“The whole chicken has to be cut by hand,” Papich says.

Canale says: “You can’t cut our chicken using automation because of the backbone. It’s not a straight cut. There’s curvature to the backbone.”

Some suppliers have turned down the business because it’s too labor intensive.

“We’ve had many poultry-supply companies come in and want to bid on our business,” Canale says. “We show them our 12-cut format, and they say, ‘What is that? We’ve never seen a cut like that before.’”

But Gerber Poultry, a Kidron, Ohio-based producer and processor of antibiotic-free chicken, has embraced the cutting concept. Gerber has supplied the Barberton chicken houses for many years.

Canale likes that the chickens his restaurant uses are grown and processed within 30 miles of the restaurant.

The recipe, although old, is hardly a secret and has been printed in newspapers and posted online.

“The key is that it’s simple,” Papich says.

It’s important not to season the chicken too much, Papich says. A breading process includes flour, egg wash and a generous amount of breadcrumbs, which helps seal the natural juiciness and tenderness of the chicken during the cooking process.

Another key is to “stack” the chicken in coolers after the breading process for a day or two.

“We want the breading to set up,” Canale says.

When the chicken is ordered, it’s placed in a deep fryer of lard, although Canale prefers to call it “animal shortening” because many people don’t like the term “lard.” But Canale also points out that lard is free of trans fat and not as bad as people may think.

“If you want all-natural, what can be more natural than [lard]?” Canale asks. “It’s coming right off the animal.”

About 20 years ago, Belgrade Gardens tried frying its chicken in a blend of cottonseed oil, which didn’t go over well with the customers. These days, nobody complains about the lard at Belgrade Gardens, Papich says. “People know what they’re getting.”

If it wasn’t for Belgrade…

USA Today once hailed Belgrade Gardens, which took its name from the capital city of Serbia, as one of the Top 10 chicken restaurants in America. If there wasn’t a Belgrade Gardens, there might not be other chicken houses. Hopocan Gardens, White House Chicken and Milich’s Village Inn all began with former employees of Belgrade Gardens.

“All of those places have direct links to our original location,” Papich says.

Knowing a good thing when she saw it, Canale’s grandmother, Helen DeVore, worked at Belgrade Gardens, but she left the restaurant to start Hopocan Gardens when Barberton was booming. Canale inherited the business from his stepfather, Bob DeVore, who once met Kentucky Fried Chicken’s founder, Colonel Sanders and jokingly told him, “If you had my recipe, you would have been a general.”

When Hopocan Gardens opened, the only two items it offered were a white-chicken dinner and a dark-chicken dinner. Both cost $1. The restaurant later added a large dinner for $1.50.

When he was a kid in the 1960s, Canale remembers the restaurants all having lines out the door. “But the poundage of chicken is nowhere near what it used to be,” he says.

In 1990, Hopocan Gardens purchased White House Chicken. The two entities sell about 6,000 lbs. of chicken per week. While Hopocan Gardens’ menu features hamburgers, ham, liver and fish, 90 percent of its customers order the chicken.

“And we sell about 3,000 lbs. of fried chicken to about 20 lbs. of grilled chicken,” Canale notes.

Papich says Belgrade Gardens sells up to 6,000 lbs. of chicken per week. That number was about 10,000 lbs. in the glory days.

Last summer, Belgrade Gardens celebrated its 80th anniversary. Belgrade Gardens has grown into something his grandparents would never have imagined, Papich says.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t come without a price to pay as they worked about 20 hour days to get the business up and established,” he adds.

Papich says business is steady, but not nearly what it was 25 years ago. He isn’t so sure there’s enough room for all of the chicken houses in Barberton because of increased competition from other restaurants.

Canale says Hopocan Gardens has sustained through difficult economic times, thanks to its tradition.

“It’s still a great value,” he adds, noting a chicken dinner costs under $10. “A large dinner can feed three people.”

Even though they’re in competition with one another, the chicken houses remain friendly with one another.

“If somebody is out of a product, we’ll trade product back and forth to help each other out,” Canale says.

While he’s in a business in a town that has helped define fried chicken, Canale says he’s also in the happy business.

“People come in here happy because they’re going to have a chicken dinner,” Canale says. “My job is to make sure they leave happy.”

Larry Aylward is a freelance editor from Medina, Ohio.