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Dining Out at Pittsford's Cluckin' Café & Culinary Institute


Published September 7, 2021 at 2:09 p.m.
Updated September 8, 2021 at 10:15 a.m.

Belgian sugar waffle topped with fried chicken and hot honey, served with smoky chipotle aioli and slaw - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Belgian sugar waffle topped with fried chicken and hot honey, served with smoky chipotle aioli and slaw

Fried chicken lovers: Flock to Pittsford.

Just north of Rutland on a flat, open stretch of Route 7, the unassuming Cluckin' Café & Culinary Institute appears like an oasis. It's in a town without many restaurants on a road with few dining destinations. Inside is some of the best fried chicken in the state, from Nashville hot to chicken and waffles.

In the fall of 2019, Nicole and Scott Bower opened the Rollin' Rooster, an aptly named fried chicken-focused food truck. The multifaceted business hasn't stopped growing since: The Rollin' Rooster now has three trucks, and, in December 2020, the couple added the brick-and-mortar restaurant in Pittsford.

Nicole, 40, developed her recipe while working as the culinary director of Poultney's independent LiHigh School. "When I'd make fried chicken as part of the lunch program and the culinary program, everybody would say, 'I would pay really good money for this,'" she said.

The school is also where she hatched the idea of a food cart: something that middle and high schoolers could run to get real-world experience.

Nicole left LiHigh in 2018 to teach art — her original career focus — in the Rutland City Public Schools. "But I couldn't shake the idea of a food truck," she said.

The Bowers started looking for trucks and found one in Killington that had never been used. They purchased the truck in September 2019 and fired up the fryers less than two weeks later at their first event, the Chaffee Art Center's Art in the Park.

The Rollin' Rooster traveled to breweries and events that fall and early winter. When the pandemic hit in March, all the events were canceled. So the Bowers brought the truck home and started offering takeout from their Rutland driveway.

They operated that way for several months, posting the menu on Facebook for customers to preorder for pickup. While restaurant staffs were busy establishing takeout, nothing really changed for the mobile biz except its location.

"We were basically doing a takeout model out of our driveway," Nicole said. "And then, one Friday, like 30 cars came into our neighborhood to pick up fried chicken. Our neighbors complained."

To appease the neighbors, the Bowers moved the truck to a rented space on Cold River Road in Rutland. By mid-June, the local brewery scene was picking back up, and they were busy enough to buy a second truck.

The new truck was especially useful when the Rollin' Rooster started cooking for the Vermont Farmers Food Center's hub for the Everyone Eats program. Between the two trucks, the Rollin' Rooster produced 150 to 200 meals at a time.

"It was getting towards the end of summer, and I had to go back to work teaching," Nicole said. "What we were doing with Everyone Eats was really pushing the capacity of what we could do in these trucks. We were getting too big for them. I told my husband we needed a commercial kitchen."

Nicole looked at restaurant spaces in the area, some of which were newly vacant due to COVID-19-era closures. At the former Harvest Moon Café and Bakehouse location in Pittsford, she found room to park the trucks. The couple purchased the restaurant as a turnkey operation.

Cluckin' Café & Culinary Institute - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Cluckin' Café & Culinary Institute

Being out in the community with the food trucks, the Bowers had generated a strong customer base and a devoted fried chicken following. Plenty of people came to the restaurant when it opened in December.

But at that point, the Cluckin' Café didn't have much fried chicken on the menu.

"I was bored with fried chicken," Nicole said with a laugh. "I have more culinary skills that I wanted to use and was trying to do something different."

Customers didn't expect salmon and steak, though, and Nicole received so much pushback that she added a Food Truck Favorites page to her menu. It featured the Rollin' Rooster's fried chicken faves, such as the Vermont Roo — a fried chicken sandwich with apple-fennel slaw, cheddar, bacon and maple mayo — and the Spicy Chick wrap, with cilantro-lime slaw and maple-Sriracha sauce.

Like many of the Bowers' customers, I headed to Pittsford with nothing but fried chicken in mind. I'd heard rumors of the Rollin' Rooster's perfectly crispy, brined and seasoned chicken — boneless thighs, so they don't dry out — and I needed to try it.

Seated on the restaurant's new patio with a local beer in hand, I ordered the chicken and waffles ($16) from the entrée menu. The sturdy Belgian sugar waffles were topped with a humongous piece of fried chicken and drizzled with hot honey. Sides of smoky chipotle aioli and a fresh slaw tied together all the layers of sweet and savory. The rumors were right, and I was in fried chicken heaven.

My husband, who has never said no to a fried chicken adventure, flipped to the back of the extensive menu — behind the "cock-tails" and beer and wine lists — to find the Food Truck Favorites. He ordered the Nashville Hot ($14): a fried chicken sandwich with pickles and housemade hot sauce, served with waffle fries in a fully loaded metal basket. It was a saucy take on the Tennessee trend and was sufficiently hot and spicy.

The stone patio's 24 seats filled up as we ate our early dinner. Many customers ordered some form of fried chicken, but we also noticed salads and burgers at tables nearby.

When it came time for dessert, I headed inside to check out the pastry case, which held a full spread of individually sized tarts and cakes. I settled on Key lime tart and a Death-by-Cookie-Dough bar before the collection of chicken art diverted my attention.

Later, Nicole explained that all the chickens were her work. (She created the art on the Rollin' Rooster trailers, signs and logos, too.) She used to sell her paintings at Art in the Park, where the business launched, but the last chicken she painted was the one on the Cluckin' Café sign.

"I'm doing the same thing with food, though," Nicole said. "It's just taking different ingredients and combining it to make art."

The Bowers have single-handedly created a fried chicken boom in the Rutland area. Other area restaurants are catching on, Nicole said, adding fried chicken to their menu for the first time. To be safe, the Bowers have trademarked their business names and the names of popular menu items.

Nicole Bower of Cluckin' Café & Culinary Institute and the Rollin' Rooste - CALEB KENNA
  • Caleb Kenna
  • Nicole Bower of Cluckin' Café & Culinary Institute and the Rollin' Rooste

Scott runs the Rollin' Rooster side of the business full time. One truck will serve at events at Killington Resort this fall and at Bear Mountain during the ski season, while the other will stay on Cold River Road. Nicole is thinking ahead to even more growth — and possibly franchising.

"From how fast we've grown already, in almost a two-year period, what's next for us?" she asked.

As if things weren't busy enough, the Cluckin' Café has given Nicole room to revisit one of her original ideas: teaching practical culinary skills to middle and high school students. The restaurant and food trucks currently employ seven local high schoolers. In addition, when she was looking for brick-and-mortar spaces last year, Nicole contacted Greg Rosenthal, the director of LiHigh School, and devised a partnership.

"I wanted to create a supportive environment where kids can get restaurant skills," Nicole said. "We want them to learn to problem solve and to make decisions."

When the restaurant opened in December, students from LiHigh School started coming in two days a week to use the commercial bakery in its basement; they baked the restaurant's desserts there through the spring. Right now, Nicole is considering how that program will look as students get settled into the new school year.

"Once we know what their interests are, we'll have kids learning the line, learning the bakery, and [we'll be] really starting to help train a multiskilled workforce that could be with us for a couple years through their high school experience," she said.

With more catering and wedding gigs on the horizon, the Bowers have obtained a third 20-foot trailer to use as a mobile commercial kitchen, combining the menu items and brands of the Rollin' Rooster and the Cluckin' Café. "It's not just a fried chicken producer," Nicole said of the new trailer.

Though there will be plenty of that, too — or loyal fans might revolt.

Dining Out is a series that explores Vermont's al fresco finest. Follow along as we highlight the restaurant decks, patios and picnic tables that give new meaning to going out to eat.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cluckin' Good"

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