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Something to crow about again

10/11/2013

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

She wanted to keep the family feel to the restaurant, and family permeates Al's Chickenette once again.

Caroline VonLintel and Gary Reiman bought the popular mom-and-pop restaurant at 700 Vine in Hays in April and opened for business last month.

Al's, which has specialized in fried chicken for more than 60 years, carries the original name from when the restaurant was opened April 23, 1949, by Al Bieker. VonLintel's children helped with some of the design work. And Cody Schmidt, grandson of former owners Richard and Donna Schmidt, is one of the restaurant's managers.

VonLintel's son, Charlie Ward, a graphic artist living in Los Angeles, designed a new logo and the menu, which serves as a place mat at each table setting. Her daughter, Lacey Ward from Hays, helped with decorating, both inside and out.

Al's features the same fried chicken recipes from years past, with the addition of several more spices, and the new owners have added their own touches, including a new house dressing called "Sweet Caroline."

All the dressings are homemade, and the chickens, which are special ordered at 3.75 pounds each, are fresh as well instead of frozen.

"Everything is fresh," VonLintel said. "We keep it fresh and iced until we need it."

The only items frozen, she added, are green beans and corn from a farmer near Norwich who picked them fresh this spring and froze them.

Former owner Tricia St. Peter had done a lot of remodeling to the building after buying it from the Schmidts in 2010, and VonLintel and Reiman -- who owns 19 Wendy's restaurants -- spruced it up even more.

They added seating in the back room with tables that feature booth seating and chairs. An old chicken roosting box from a henhouse on a family farm holds lots and lots of ceramic chickens.

"They were left from when the Schmidts owned it," VonLintel said. "People would bring them in and them to (the owners). I hope that starts happening."

Lacey Ward scavenged scrap parts from a family farm for the large chicken on the outside, which has been re-painted in a barnyard red chicken coop color.

Al's even has a new website, www.als-chickenette.com.

VonLintel promises more additions by the time the eatery celebrates its 65th birthday next April.

In the kitchen, VonLintel and Reiman added high pressure fryers that cater to catering large orders.

"We can make 36 chickens in 15 minutes," VonLintel said.

She plans to add waffles to the menu in the future, and have items such as chicken tacos and wings as daily specials.

For now, though, customers seem to be content with the current menu.

"I couldn't wait until it reopened again," Hays resident Laurene Knoll said earlier this week while eating lunch at Al's to help celebrate the 85th birthday of her husband, Andrew Knoll.

For the time being, VonLintel is present at every meal at the restaurant, which is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and still hopes to be there every Sunday even after the business gets a firm footing.

"It feels like you're feeding a family, and I like that," she said, especially of the Sunday crowd. "I've had people come up to me in tears thanking us for reopening.

"This place has a heartbeat," VonLintel said. "It's not just a restaurant."