Manatee natives opening Chicken Kitchen restaurant in University Park Center

Manatee location part of planned Tampa Bay expansion for Miami chain

cschelle@bradenton.comApril 2, 2014 

UNIVERSITY PARK -- A North Miami Beach restaurant called Chicken Kitchen is coming to University Park, thanks to the help of brothers-in-law with Manatee County roots.

Fresh, fast-food concept Chicken Kitchen plans to open a 2,500-square-foot restaurant at 5215 University Parkway beside Tijuana Flats in Benderson Development's University Park Center. The goal is to open in late summer/September, but construction and permits could push that back.

How the Chicken Kitchen crossed Florida roads starts with Gris Bettle and his brother-in-law, Justin Mattina. Bettle, of West Bradenton, admitted that the mortgage loan business isn't much fun anymore, and after 20 years in the business, he was looking for a spark. His brother-in-law/chef Mattina knew what was cooking in Miami could make the trek to University Park.

"Chicken Kitchen came on my radar five years before that in Palm Beach, and I tried it and really liked it," Mattina said. Mattina, a graduate of Manatee High School, had met Chicken Kitchen founder Christian de Berdouare through connections in the restaurant industry and jumped at the chance to work with his brother-in-law and find a way back home.

Mattina, a graduate of Florida Culinary Institute and former Fazoli's manager, is looking forward to coming home now with the opening of Chicken Kitchen. His family moved to Bradenton from Georgia when he was 3 years old and, after time in West Palm and Miami, he's ready to move to Lakewood Ranch.

"There's a little more calmness and a friendlier spirit," Mattina said of his hometown area.

The first Chicken Kitchen opened in New York in 1988 in a 1,000-square-foot space before Berdouare relocated to Miami and opened a restaurant beside the University of Miami, where the restaurant grew a cult-like following.

Chicken Kitchen is known for its hour-long grilling process and aims to give a more personable experience than the cafeteria-line fast food joints. The signature items include Chop-Chop, which is diced chicken dishes that customers can hear the distinct chopping sound while in line, and Wrapitos, which are grilled tortilla wraps.

"We only have all-white meat chicken, and we don't own a microwave or a freezer," said Bettle, a St. Stephen's Episcopal School graduate. "Everything's fresh, and the chicken is all natural, so it's raised antibiotic free."

Plus, the chicken shouldn't be warming in a container, waiting to be ordered.

"The food's coming right off the grill, and in 30 seconds it's right on your plate, and you're eating something that's freshly prepared," Mat

tina said, adding the experience gives a little bit of theater to dining.

If all goes well, the duo has a five-year plan to open six restaurants in Tampa Bay.

The chain has received favorable reviews from the Miami Herald and other South Florida publications. Since the first restaurant's opening in New York in 1993, press releases and stories from Berdouare have claimed hopes of having the company go public or being on the cusp of franchising in places like Las Vegas and Chicago. But those plans have not come to fruition, nor have plans for 1,000 stores across the nation. Many of the 24 existing stores had closed, including a location at the Westfield Brandon mall and the original New York restaurant.

The University Park restaurant will include some tweaks and changes to the Chicken Kitchen locations in the Miami area, with a décor that is more Gulf Coast-centric, along with some changes to the menu that help revamp the brand of Chicken Kitchen while cutting costs.

"We actually pared down the menu a bit because we want to open with a strong core of products with Chop-Chop and Wrapitos," Mattina said. Some Miami favorites like plantains might not make it on the menu here, while balsamic tomatoes are in the works for the University Park location.

The location will also be the first Chicken Kitchen to carry beer and wine.

Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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