Photography by Sean Russel/Flickr

The ClassicsNashville

Nine Questions for the Matriarch of Prince’s Hot Chicken

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For Ms. André Prince Jeffries, the owner of Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, hot chicken is a way of life, so much more than a beloved family recipe that has now been replicated and imitated the world over. 

Since 1980, Jeffries has kept her family’s legacy alive, one that started nearly 100 years ago in the mid-1930’s when her great uncle, Thornton Prince, first discovered the joy of fried chicken slathered in a blend of fiery spices, eventually opening the BBQ Chicken Shack.

Aside from a few location changes, a rebranding to Prince’s Hot Chicken in 1980, and the addition of different spice levels, from plain to “XXX Hot,” not much else has changed about Prince’s after all these years. And that’s exactly how Jeffries, now 74, intends to keep things, even when you’re dealing with something like a pandemic.

If anything, she’s more resolved than ever to keep the business going and to make things even better, because it’s what her community needs right now.

“My customers are so encouraging,” she says. “Without my customers, there’s no me without them. There is no me without them. I’m most grateful.”

Resy: How have things been for you and for Prince’s this year?

Ms. André Prince Jeffries: I cannot complain. We’re still getting a few customers in at a time, so it’s helping with the bills. Of course, with this pandemic, it has affected us, especially as far as capacity is concerned. But they have allowed me to stay open and get dine in and pick up orders. They can sit out on the deck and we have 25% capacity inside the restaurant, so it’s better than nothing. It’s better than being closed, of course. We were still open during quarantine, so people could come in and pick up food. But we have to adjust to the flow. That’s just what life is: adjustment.

Photo courtesy Lifestyle Communities LLC

Why do you think hot chicken is so popular today?

When I took over (the restaurant) in 1980, the first thing I did was rename the restaurant as Prince’s Hot Chicken. Why my great uncle named it BBQ, I have no idea, because the chicken was never barbecued. It used to be fried in those large cast-iron skillets. I didn’t remember the chicken being barbecued — it may have had a barbecue taste, but it was never barbecued. I remembered it as being hot. I named it after the family, to give the Prince family the recognition. 

Growing up, I remember when my father would bring it home on late Saturday nights and we ate it on early Sunday mornings. Seeing that brown greasy bag on the stove was something we looked forward to, but he never brought home more than two pieces. All together there were three children and here was my mother and father, and we only each got a pinch. Each of us only got a pinch. [Chuckling] I don’t know why he only brought no more than two pieces home. I just remember it being hot and we looked forward to seeing that greasy bag on early Sunday morning. That’s why I named it Prince’s Hot Chicken. 

(Former) Mayor Bill Purcell of Nashville, he’s always been a customer. When I took over, he was a customer, when he was in the legislature. He has been a consistent, determined person to put Nashville hot chicken out there. Now it’s been almost 13 years since he started the annual Music City Hot Chicken Festival and he always recognized me. He’s the first person to be so consistent with putting this hot chicken out there because Nashville has been known for hot chicken for a very very long time. 

Was the chicken that Prince’s sold always known as “hot chicken”?

No, they just ordered it. When my great uncle had it under the name BBQ Chicken Shack, it was just one way. One of the other things I changed was having the different variations. I changed it from mild, which was the one way my great uncle had it, to plain, mild, medium, hot, and extra hot. 

I want to emphasize that more women eat it extra hot than men. That’s been very interesting to me, as far as that consistency. Men will try it, but they will come down off of it. Now, people order it all types of ways. Most people order it, if they want it hot, they order it medium because our medium is pretty hot. Women go all up the scale. 

The youngest customer who still comes, he’s four or five now, but his mother ate it when she was expecting him, which I don’t recommend, but she ate it hot. He won’t eat the plain chicken; he has to have it mild. Our mild, to me, that’s too hot for a child. But that’s the only way he will eat it. He is so precious. He’s the youngest customer that I know of, and he eats our hot chicken at least twice a week. I hope the spice doesn’t damage his stomach lining. That’s the only way he will have it. His mother comes in and gets it just for him; she comes just for him. Have mercy. I think that it’s precious. 

My own preference is the mild. I don’t go past mild. Your body chemistry changes over time, according to the individual. So I can’t go over mild. Medium is just too hot. 

What makes Prince’s story so special?

When my great uncle, Thornton Prince, got the business license for BBQ Chicken Shack, I think it was back in 1935 or 1936 as far as the state archives go. But before that, it was more than likely that he sold the chicken from his house. He was probably selling his hot chicken on the weekends, more than likely. That’s when people were looking forward to being off. They didn’t keep records, of course, back then. They were just trying to make ends meet. And of course, you never made enough money. There are very, very few businesses as far as Black-owned, or color-owned as we were called then. I’m sure it was really hard for him to get really started. However, it is still going.

People from the Grand Ole Opry would leave the opera house and come down to Prince’s in Hadley Park. Well, it was known as BBQ Chicken Shack then. They’d come because we were open so late. We used to be open until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s been a secret of Nashville for a long time, not only through Music City, but from having chicken made hot and spicy and being open until 4 a.m. on the weekend. I don’t know who else would have been open that late. 

There was always something happening at the chicken shack. Always. It was never a dull moment. Because people from all sides of life would come there, from the grandest to the poorest, we’ve welcomed them all. That place was iconic for meeting people. 

And for my great uncle to, you know, have the nerve to do that. To be open that late. Back then, most Black people were off on Sundays, that was the mainly the one day that we were assured we would be off. Come Saturday evenings, hey, we were celebrating because we just wanted to chill and relax and so, word got around. We did very, very little advertising; we didn’t advertise back then; it was all word of mouth. Here we are today, in 2020 and the chicken shack is still going on, so I’m most grateful for that.

What does Prince’s mean, especially to the Black community in Nashville?  I read stories about how, back in the day, Black customers of Prince’s would eat in the front, and white customers would eat in the back. Can you tell me more about that? 

Prince’s is like a cornerstone. It’s just iconic to the Black — well, we were called colored back then — to the colored neighborhood. There was just so much rejoicing, so much unspeakable joy to have someone look like them to have a place open for them to come, especially late at night. It was a period of segregation. To us, that was normal. 

There was that room in the back that was reserved for white people. And also there was a door in the back of the building that white people could come through, especially when they were coming from the Grand Ole Opry. We accepted it as being normal. Of course, white people could always come through the front door. We didn’t exclude anybody; white people excluded us. They could come in through the front door, back door, whatever door, as long as they were helping us pay our bills. That was the goal: to get the bills paid, have mercy. We didn’t discriminate. But they could always eat in the front. But if they chose to segregate themselves, they walked through the kitchen and they came in through the back door to this specific room. 

I didn’t know anything about this specific room until my father took us down there one day during the daytime. He took us down there one day and he showed us this private room and I remember it being green. He showed us this private room and this was the room where white people ate. I guess I was probably about 10 or 12. 

That was accepted. It was just normal in that day. But in the department stores, even when we went to buy clothes or shoes, we saw the restrooms labeled colored and we saw the restrooms labeled white. The water fountains were labeled colored and there were water fountains labeled white. It was accepted. We didn’t know anything otherwise. This was the atmosphere that we were growing up in. That wasn’t shocking; that’s just the way it was.

What does Prince’s mean to Nashville?

Well of course, we’ve always relied on the community. We’ve always relied on our neighbors and those coming from far and near to communicate. That’s what has kept us going: the communication and by word of mouth that our customers have continued to support us. It was so different, there was not another hot chicken place around. It was something to talk about. 

I always urge couples to bring their dates to the chicken shack because it gives you something to talk about and something to communicate other than your feelings. Hey, that’s something to talk about. You gotta say something. You can get your date something kinda spicy, hot, and hey, they are gonna talk. Some words are gonna come out of their mouth. Have mercy. It’s a communication thing. That’s what all this is for. It’s for communicating. Have mercy.

Like I say, I am overjoyed. 

Hot chicken is also all over the world now. It has spread all over the world. But now they call it Nashville hot chicken. That’s OK. It originated here in Nashville, and it’s still in Nashville. I’ve had offers from all over the world to come but at 74 years old, I think I’m just a little too old to be flying across the oceans. I leave it to whatever happens, happens. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m just very satisfied with staying right here in Nashville and trying to make things better.

What’s the secret to Prince’s longevity?

Well, persistence. In keeping moving. My mother always said, “Keep moving no matter what. Keep moving because if you’re not moving, you’re dead.” Have mercy, the motivation to just keep moving. 

What would you like Prince’s, or your own, legacy to be?

Well, I’m just glad it’s still going and it’s still operating. Have mercy, and through it all. I just can’t imagine. I’m just overjoyed and my cup runneth over that we are still open. We are still open and I am grateful to all people. 

My mother always said, “Everybody has got to eat to live,” and that’s why she urged me on her deathbed to take over the restaurant. I was the only one in my immediate family that was divorced and my mother and father were getting older and with their continued support of me, and my mother being sick, she urged me, after she was offered by my great aunt, Maude Prince, to take over the restaurant. [Maude] wanted to get out. That was Will Prince’s wife. When my great uncle, Thornton Prince, passed, his brother, Will Prince, took over. After he passed, his wife, Maude Prince, took over. That’s who I got the restaurant from, with great hesitation, because I had never been in the restaurant when it was operating except maybe twice, with my mother. 

It was a great challenge for me, but stepping out on faith, here I am, with the neighborhood sustaining me. I can’t believe it myself. But of course there have been hard times, but life is full of transitions so I’m just trying to go with the flow. I’m still on the ship.

For Prince’s, I want the legacy to be to stay open. And to continue selling hot, spicy chicken because people need it to sober up. People need it to sober up. Have mercy, there are a lot of people who drink. Hot chicken that is spicy, it is sobering. Have mercy. To keep it going. 

I’m grateful to all of my beautiful customers who continue to come, no matter what. Their great grandchildren are coming. It’s unbelievable. Have mercy to keep it going. Thank God for that. 

I’m trying to stay with it as long as the good lord gives me the strength to get up and get there. I put my all into it, and I’m almost drained but He still gives me the strength to keep moving. I hope I can continue. I’m not in the kitchen as I used to be, but just to be there. To be present. 

I’m sitting out on the deck now outside now. I love it. I love greeting the old customers and the  encouragement they give me. When I’m down they just pick me up. It just comes from all walks of life. Just to keep moving. It’s very sustaining, all of their encouragement.

Anything else would you want to say to diners near and far?

Just keep coming. Keep coming, and help us out with our bills. There’s no me without you. Have mercy.  

***

Prince’s Hot Chicken: 5814 Nolensville Pike, Nashville. www.princeshotchicken.com

Deanna Ting is a Resy staff writer. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter. Follow @Resy, too. 

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