VFW chicken shack reopens, with help from strangers

After a winter storm wrecked a local chicken shack, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7234 members didn’t imagine they’d be able to reopen for summer, without paying a dime. But, the fundraising barbecue shack reopened on May 21, in time for the summer season.

Storms had blown down the heavy pavilion on Delaware National Guard property, just north of Bethany Beach on Coastal Highway, ruining the fire pit. But Aaron Rogers united the building industry to renovate the simple, but essential, barbecue shack.

As president of Empire Construction Group in Milton, Rogers said he felt that he had the ability — and therefore, the responsibility — to help.

“[Rogers] was driving by, and he saw that it had fallen down,” said Ken Weber, a VFW volunteer who oversees the chicken shack. “He said, ‘Look, I would like to offer our company’s services to rebuild that for you, and we’ll bear all the costs and materials and labor for doing it.’”

Originally, members had planned to just rebuild the brick barbecue pit, but realized the sales shack needed an overhaul, too. So Rogers offered the VFW a chance to expand. The pavilion now has a comfortable amount of space to move, with proper roofing ventilation, and the new shack is sturdy and modern. But it’s still simplistic enough to get the job done: cook good food, and feed the people.

“He basically said, ‘Well, you guys have done so much for the country, this is the least we can do.’ It really warms your heart when people are generous like that,” said VFW member Jerry Hardiman.

Major donors included Wyoming Millwork, Parker Block Inc. and ABC Supply Co. Rogers also thanked the Luckow Family Foundation, Coastal Container, GAF, Sussex County Councilman George Cole (R-4th), The Gutter Guys and Cummings Electric/Sean Cummings. Empire’s subcontractors also donated time or quoted discounted prices. Coastal Maytag also gave a new refrigerator. Another cash donation made the entire project come together.

“I think it turned out really well,” Rogers said. “I know the feedback that we got from them was very, very positive. All those guys are tickled because they’re not used to having somebody on their side” to volunteer so much help.

“He’s a young man who doesn’t have a background in the military, and he stepped up to rebuild it for them,” said Kathy McQuowan, who is both Rogers’ mother and vice president/jack-of-all-trades at Empire Construction.

“The thing that really shocked me was the younger veterans and the younger armed services guys don’t get involved in the veterans associations. … Those associations are all there to support [each other],” Rogers said.

Rogers marveled at the stories he heard from the older VFW veterans.

“They love to see these young men come in there and talk with them to find out what their experiences are,” McQuowan said. “They can learn a lot from these veterans of World War II and Korea…”

Rogers estimated it would have cost $30,000 to rebuild the chicken shack if he had contracted the job out regularly.

“We are truly grateful to Empire Construction and the coalition of contractors involved, because without their generosity, we may have very well may not been able to open the chicken shack this season … to be able to generate the kind of monies we previously generated,” said Weber, who wants to install a plaque of thanks.

“Last year, our chicken shack concession netted to the post $24,000,” Weber said. “Everything that’s made goes right back out to donations to worthwhile programs and services.”

For 70 years, local VFW volunteers have helped veterans and civilians near and far, as well as medical research, fire companies, school programs, social work and more.

“They do a lot of tremendous stuff,” Rogers said.

“We’re pretty proud that we’re able to give that much back. We’re grateful to the community for all the support we get from them,” Weber said, especially when people could choose so many other restaurants on a Saturday afternoon.

Time to eat!

The VFW chicken shack is open on Saturdays until Labor Day, from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., or until they’re sold out.

Every single week each summer, Weber leads a cadre of about 20 other men and women who stand over the coals, flip the birds and sell lunch to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

The oldest volunteer, every week, is a World War II veteran in his 90s.

Believed to have begun in the 1960s, the chicken shack first delighted diners in downtown Bethany, at the corner of Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue. And the recipe hasn’t changed in 50 years, although the shack moved to Delaware National Guard land around the 1980s.

“[Longtime member] Irv Hudson’s mother, Flora, gave them her recipe for her secret barbecue sauce,” Hardiman said. “It’s not a red sauce. It’s a Carolina sauce. It’s really, really delicious.”

“We have a dedicated group of ladies who make up our barbecue sauce for us. I call ’em ‘The Sauce Girls.’ They’ve been mixing the secret sauce for longer than I’ve been involved in the chicken shack,” Weber said.

“The food is outstanding,” Hardiman said. “I’m not doing this as a sales pitch. It’s delicious. It sells out [often]. People come from all over.”

Meals cost $7 for half a chicken, chips and a roll, plus $1 for a soda.

“It’s amazing the iconic status that that chicken shack holds here in Bethany,” Weber said.

People eat immediately at the picnic tables, carry their lunch to the beach or reheat the meat for dinner. Some come every weekend, and some out-of-towners time their vacation arrivals with Saturday lunchtime.