Where Everybody Knows Your Game
Pickleball is the daily special at Chicken N Pickle, a series of Cheers-style hangouts where players can gather, eat, and play.
CHICKEN AND PICKLEBALL go together like peanut butter and jelly. At least that’s what David Johnson thought back in 2015. Johnson, a real estate entrepreneur, was introduced to the game while visiting a friend in Phoenix that year. He was instantly obsessed and, not long after that, inspired. Recognizing that pickleball courts were in high demand, he returned home to Missouri convinced that his community needed a new place to play. But that was just the beginning; he also saw an opportunity to create a novel dining concept—equal parts pickleball games and good eats—and got in touch with restaurateur Bill Crooks to bring
his idea to life.
Crooks, who had almost three decades of experience in the food industry and zero experience with pickleball, at first agreed just to help flesh out the design of the first restaurant. But after Johnson got him on the court, “I was struck by how social pickleball is,” he says. “I fell in love with the concept, and decided I wanted to run the restaurant too.”
Chicken N Pickle is a combo platter of a venue: a place with courts and a restaurant where players can dine and dink.
That irresistible concept was a combo platter of a venue: a place with courts and a full-service restaurant where pickleball players could dine and dink. Chicken N Pickle’s original location opened in an abandoned warehouse in North Kansas City in 2016. While pickleball restaurants are now a bona fide dining niche—with pickleball bars right on their heels (see “Getting Pickled,” starting on page 71)—this original Chicken N Pickle was arguably the first place in the country to combine destination dining with courts for play.
Turns out there was definitely an appetite for the idea. “The courts were selling out quickly, and before long we couldn’t keep enough food and cold beer in stock to get us through a weekend,” says Crooks, whose title is chief experience officer. “I’ve opened over 30 restaurants over the years, and that’s the first time I ever saw that happen.”
Today the company boasts four complexes in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and two more are slated to open by the end of 2021, another in 2022. The expansion has been a runaway hit, largely because, along with wings and burgers, Chicken N Pickle serves up a sense of community for pickleball players. “This has become the Cheers of the Northland area,” Johnson has said. “It has exceeded all my expectations—financially and emotionally.”
A WINNING RECIPE How do you create the first-ever pickleball restaurant? Johnson and Crooks started with some courts. They designed the original site with four indoor courts and four outdoor. But eight courts weren’t enough to meet pickleballers’ demand; the newer outlets—in Wichita, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio—each feature 10 or more.
The courts were selling out quickly,” says bill crooks, “ and before long we couldn’t keep enough food and cold beer in stock.”
Then they added delicious food to satisfy that post-game hunger. Inspired by visits to the Cayman Islands, Johnson wanted wood-grilled chicken to be the main attraction. Crooks brought on board executive chef Alex Staab, who started dousing the humble poultry with jerk, Southwest, or seven-chili seasoning and serving it with tortillas, avocados, and sauces, like mango-habanero chutney and honey-brew BBQ. Crooks also made sure the menu was wellness and community conscious: As much as possible, each location relies on nearby suppliers for its chicken, beef, and pork; cocktails are seasonal and beer is regional; and all items on the menu are additive free.
The final must-have ingredient was that pickleball attitude. “The first time I tried the game, I was so impressed by how friendly everyone was,” Crooks says. “People want to help each other get better in this sport, which is a departure from other activities.”
To provide that assistance, at any given time two or three staff members are on hand to help visitors with the basics of the game. “We don’t just put new players on the court and say ‘Here you go,’” Crooks says. “We’re here to give them as much or as little information as they want.” Customers can play in leagues of all levels, make a court reservation for a foursome, or try the sport for the first time. “Everyone on our staff—that’s 675 team members—knows the basics of the game,” Crooks says. “If things are slow, or if someone needs an extra player, someone from staff can jump in to help.”
“Everyone on our staff knows the basics of the game,” says Crooks. “That’s 675 team members.”
OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN The team is dedicated to cultivating community off the courts as well—and to living up to the company’s motto, Our Hearts Are Local. They offer weekly yoga sessions and a variety of other activities that extend well beyond the chain’s namesake game, and host events such as pumpkin decorating in the fall and shrimp boils in summer. Then there are philanthropic occasions, like the Volley Llama fundraiser for Noah’s Bandage Project, when child cancer patients teamed up with celebrities, including players from the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, in a pickleball tournament to raise money—reportedly, $125,000—for cancer research.
At the height of the pandemic, Chicken N Pickle was often the site of fundraisers and meals for first responders. “Having outdoor spaces for both pickleball and events definitely made things safer and easier,” Crooks says. And although capacity was limited for a while, “we managed to keep many of our key employees on staff thanks to PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans,” he says. “Our industry lost a lot of good people and establishments, so we consider ourselves fortunate to have pulled through with a limited amount of damage.” And to help those who didn’t weather the pandemic as easily, the team formed the Chicken N Pickle Foundation, which encourages employees to volunteer. Since it was formed in 2020, it has donated more than $250,000—and hundreds of hours of pickleball court space for use in fundraising events—to local charitable organizations, including the Police Athletic League, the Northland Symphony Orchestra, the KC Pet Project, and Voices for Children.
It’s all in the spirit of the game so many people turned to during the pandemic. In good times and in bad, “pickleball is what holds us together,” Crooks says. “We’ve created a space and environment that works for adults, kids, and families. If we can get them all to play and spend time together, it’s a huge win for us.”
What’s the best chaser for a pickleball restaurant? How about a pickleball bar? There are now several spots around the country where you can bring your partner for a dink and a drink. —Eleni N. Gage
The Ace Cafe started in London in 1938 as a trucker café. It’s grown to be a global phenomenon, with five more outposts worldwide. But the Florida location has something that sets it apart: two pickleball courts.
“We have a large, beautiful backyard, so it just made sense to us,” retail-recreation manager Maggie McCaughan says.
The 35,000-square-foot space, a former nightclub where acts such as Pearl Jam, Green Day, and Lenny Kravitz once played, still hosts live music concerts and car shows and features a large bar where mules—mixed with Ace’s homemade ginger beer and a variety of liquors—are served. Every Tuesday, the bar hosts a pickleball social at which attendees drink beer, meet fellow pickleballers, and enjoy three hours of open play. “It’s a great way to find more people to play with,” McCaughan says. The social “is open to all skill levels, and focuses on fun more than competition.” acecafeusa.com
As the name implies, pickleball wasn’t the main draw when this Kansas City venue opened in 2017; it was devoted to sand volleyball and had six courts dedicated to the sport. But after noticing the hunger for pickleball, the owners added it to the menu, installing five courts in the outdoor sports area in 2019 and expanding into a two-story complex with a 4,000-square-foot rooftop deck.
Today guests can sign up for the spring, summer, or fall league, rent a court for personal use any day of the week, or participate in one of many tournaments and fundraisers throughout the year. Spectators can watch the action from the largest rooftop deck in the area, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the courts, or stop in at the restaurant, which has a seasonal drink menu as well as 35 beers on tap, plus a full kitchen—and stays open even in the dead of winter, when the courts are closed.
After two years of pickleball play, it’s safe to say that adding the courts was a hit. So much so that when the management of The Sandbox opens a sister complex, Derby Sports Zone, this winter in Derby, Kansas, they aren’t wasting any time. There will be sand volleyball and yard games, yes—but pickleball courts are part of the plan from day one. sandvolleyballkc.com
You’ve heard of wine and cheese. How about cider and pickleball? The unusual pairing is what the Minneapolis Cider Co. is all about. Founders David O’Neill and Jason Dayton developed a love for cider as juniors at the University of Minnesota during their year abroad in England. In 2019, six years after returning, they opened a taproom and craft cidery where, under the direction of the third founder, cider maker Rob Fisk, they produce hard ciders, some with juice from local orchards. The 30,000- square-foot space holds a taproom that serves cider and crepes, as well as four pickleball courts and a venue for private events.
“Cider for us is ultimately about building community,” Dayton explains. “Pickleball accomplishes this even better! Our leagues bring folks together from all over Minneapolis.”
As friendships grow, so does the local appetite for pickleball; the space opened in May 2019, added two pickleball courts that December and doubled that number this year. The Cider Co. is doing what it can to make sure the future of pickleball—and cider—stays bright. “Minneapolis Cider recently became a 1% for the Planet member, where we have pledged 1% of sales to environmental causes,” Dayton says. “After all, apples do grow on trees!” minneapoliscider.co
Everything is larger than life at the Smash Park in West Des Moines, a 47,000-square-foot venue with four indoor pickleball courts, plus two outdoor in The Yard. Also in the The Yard, which management calls Des Moines’s largest patio: cornhole, bocce, shuffleboard, and Giant Pong. Then there are the cocktails. Drinks, like the Beach, Please!—a mix of Malibu, amaretto, rum, grenadine, and orange and pineapple juices—come in fishbowl-sized “Sociabowls” meant for sharing.
Another thing that’s big? The list of things to do. Through the Smash Park app, visitors can register for in-house trivia nights and wacky tournaments, like Ugly Sweater Dodgeball and Beer Olympics. But pickleball remains— as Rachel Wegmann, vice president of marketing, calls it—“our anchor activity; it mirrors what our CEO, Monty Lockyear, wanted to deliver when he opened Smash Park in 2018—a fun and active way to connect with friends and family.”
Those looking to make new pals can join a pickleball league, and man’s best friend is welcome in The Yard too. Smash Park’s “Go big or go home” strategy seems to be working: Two more locations are opening soon—Pella, Iowa, in spring 2022, and Omaha that fall. “Our plans are to open three a year,” Wegmann says. smashpark.com