The Federal Donuts Chicken Sandwich, Philadelphia, and Appreciating What’s in Front of You
For the past 8 years, I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the city of Philadelphia. During that time, I’ve lived in a several different parts of the city, but I have always handled the work, school, and generally more “required” parts of my life in University City, a neighborhood in West Philadelphia. That area is named as such because it is surrounded by the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, both of which have been heavily investing in it throughout the last few decades.
Their investment has resulted in a boom over that time period, and development in West Philly has exploded. As a result, a number of new restaurants and businesses have been opening in University City, taking advantage of the thousands of 18–22 year olds and their (somewhat) disposable income that live mere steps away from their locations. Perhaps more appealing than the brand new restaurants or national chains opening up, though, was the appearance of Philly favorites that expanded into the area, with one in particular standing out.
Federal Donuts, formerly located only in a far-away-from-most location in South Philly, suddenly became regularly attainable to the growing community in University City. Specialty donuts that used to routinely sell out before noon, highly coveted but hardly ever consumed, were produced at a much higher rate. Items that seemed to exist only in legend (Guava Poppy donuts?!?!?) were experienced in person. At the office, donut days improved exponentially. There was a new way to show gratitude or celebrate some kind of achievement that didn’t involve the same 6 Dunkin’ Donuts issuances you’ve been eating since 1997. They also served fantastic coffee, hot and cold brew, making it a particularly attractive place to visit when in need of both a quality sugar rush and a quality caffeine high.
Beyond the donuts, though, was probably the most attractive item Federal Donuts had to offer; fried chicken. In the old days of one location and limited supply, the fried chicken would sell out faster than the donuts would. There would be lines for it, with people heading to the establishment early in the morning, before the chicken was even cooking, to reserve their spot in an effort to obtain it. However, as the expansion of Federal Donuts began, the scarcity predictably fell.
Since you can’t regularly eat donuts as real meals (although to some that is debatable), the fried chicken also helped bridge the gap for FedNuts into practical, mid-day food. Not only could you head out and grab donuts for a special occasion, you could #TreatYourself to some fried chicken for lunch. Still, as you had to get either a whole or half chicken, it was quite a bit to eat in one sitting during a normal day. No matter how much cardio you’re planning to do at the gym later, that is large meal.
What brought FedNuts all the way home, then, was the edible version of the hallelujah chorus pictured above, the Federal Donuts chicken sandwich. Introduced in 2015, it elevated Federal Donuts’ menu to new heights. Specifically, it brought it into the fast-casual space that seems to be dominating the mass-market culinary scene at the moment. Instead of committing to buying at least half of a chicken, overspending for lunch, and passing out at your desk afterwards, you could grab the sandwich, fall into bliss for 10 minutes, and finish your day off without an overwhelming measure of guilt. This made Federal Donuts the perfect place for a quick-escape lunch during less hectic days at the office.
Every once in a while, two or three of us will make the 5 minute trek over to the restaurant, grab a sandwich and a cold brew coffee, and vibe out. The steps of Penn Law are right across the street, a prime sitting area, and the street itself sits between Walnut and Chestnut, just west of 34th street, isolated enough to keep away wanderers and those who don’t have a reason to be on there. For years even people familiar with the area weren’t aware some of the newer establishments had opened.
This idea of heading to Federal Donuts, grabbing a chicken sandwich with a minimal wait and no fear of not being able to get one before it sells out, then eating it next to the restaurant, all just a short trip from an office in University City, would have seemed absurd until recently. The expansion seemed almost routine and unannounced, almost too casual to actually have happened.
Then again, that experience isn’t a poor reflection of how Philadelphia behaves as a city. Penn is one of the 10 best Universities in the US and yet, although beautiful, is in an unassuming neighborhood tucked away in West Philadelphia, an area many considered rather dangerous until about 20 years ago. Wharton, which regularly produces titans of industry (and this year, a major party Presidential candidate), is across the street from a humble, unremarkable, AT&T store.
I think about this regularly when traversing through the city. Independence Hall, famous as the birthplace of America, is known more to residents of Philadelphia as “close to Independence Beer Garden”, itself just a seasonal installation beneath a parking garage. More than once, after a few drinks, I’ve remarked to my companions with the levity that only 4 Yards Pale Ales can bring that America was started right here, feet from where we stand beneath this parking garage. I’ve also taken the walk to the back of the Liberty Bell display, right on Chestnut Street, and remarked how silly it is that tourists wait in line for an hour to see something you could walk half a block to see without any wait at all.
All of this falls into the strange and fantastic complexity of living in Philadelphia, which seems to simultaneously be one of the largest, most significant, most famous cities in the world and the smallest town you’ve ever been to. It’s not that everyone knows everyone, or that there’s one stoplight, but everyone knows and recognizes the same neighborhoods, street corners, and restaurants, often with a fairly unremarkable air. In New York, you stand in line for Cronuts because demand is so high and people come from all over to have one. The supply is controlled, and only 350 are made per day. In Philadelphia, Federal Donuts opens a new location on a quiet street and hardly anyone bothers to notice except those within a few blocks who are happy to take advantage of the amazing chicken sandwich they offer from their expanding menu.
Of course, none of this is really about the chicken sandwich, or Independence Hall, or City Hall, but about freely enjoying tiny luxuries in a city that sometimes seems to be outgrowing itself. The steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, immortalized by Rocky, are routinely used for CrossFit classes. The heavyweight champion of the world pushed himself to make it up those steps just once, and now there are dozens of people spider-leaping across them in sets of 10 (I think that’s what CrossFit is, right?). Not only that, but the museum has discussed redesigning the steps, ridding itself of something that millions of people readily identify with.
Eastern State Penitentiary, known world-wide as a famous prison complex, is known as a place that puts on a pretty good haunted house ever year. For those who live near it, it’s known as a place that puts on a pretty horrendous traffic-inducing, parking space-destroying atrocity every year. If you take the tour outside of the months of September and October, you’ll be wildly impressed by what the Penitentiary has to offer. Most people, I imagine, walk by it regularly without remarking how massive, how interesting, and how historically significant it is. Located in a family-oriented, public transportation desert a 10 minute walk away from pretty much of anything else, it almost seems like it doesn’t belong there.
And yet, this doesn’t seem inappropriate. It’s not like these things aren’t appreciated, it’s just that they’re so common, prominent, and accessible to the people fortunate enough to live here that they’re just sort of accepted. Philadelphia is the smallest big city, providing the opportunity to nab much sought-after items and experiences with a casual air that I don’t think is so simple in other places. Of course, this makes it all the more difficult to reflect on and appreciate the awesome nature of that experience.
The Federal Donuts chicken sandwich, so perfect and pristine, yet so easily and affordably obtained, is something that I think I’ll gravely miss one day. The same is true of so much else in Philadelphia. It’s easy to take some of this for granted when you’re a member of the community. It’s important to remember to occasionally stop and smell the chicken sandwich.
Of course, none of this is really about the chicken sandwich.