South of UF campus and across the road from Zeezenia International Market is a baby blue food truck, with accents of pink, turquoise, yellow and white. A large, round, cream-colored cartoon chicken with a crown faces bold black text in all-caps that reads “Birdie Box” and “Sweet Tea Brined Chicken Sandos.”
Behind the truck is a black one-story building with an overhang and bright neon lights. The same cartoon chicken shines in white, and above it, the restaurant’s name in hot pink.
Birdie Box, a gourmet chicken sandwich food truck at 2216 SW 13th St, will have its grand opening as a cashless drive-up and curbside pick-up restaurant on April 1. Their hours are from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday.
Co-owners Ash Free, 36, and Brian Cook, 33, worked tirelessly within the dark building, arranging equipment to prepare for the opening.
“Brian and I met in culinary school up in New York, at the Culinary Institute of America, and we kept in touch for a number of years,” Free said.
After working with Free for a few years in Denver, Colorado, Cook moved to Florida. Free, who is originally from Gainesville, returned to his hometown and reunited with Cook during the COVID-19 pandemic. The two started Birdie Box as a pop-up at the Gainesville Country Club in January 2021.
“As a lot of people in the culinary industry experienced in bigger cities, they had to leave because restaurants closed up,” Free said. “I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to open the pop-up in town and took a leap of faith and got Brian to jump on board with me.”
Altering the landscape of restaurants across the globe, COVID-19 presented a challenge for many restaurants, as some continued to thrive while others couldn’t. In light of this, Free and Cook believed they knew what everyone was looking for: a chicken sandwich with a gourmet spin.
“You see the lines wrapped around Chick-Fil-A and we know we could do a better job than they do,” Free said.
The pop-up at Gainesville Country Club was well-received by the community, leading to Free and Cook’s decision to establish a drive-up restaurant.
“It just went bananas,” Free said. “We decided to keep rolling with it. It turned into acquiring this property, getting the food truck, being able to get back in business and get people the sandwiches they came to love.”
Part of what sets Birdie Box apart from other restaurants is the pair’s culinary experience, Free said.
“We were trained in a classic French style at culinary school and did work in some Michelin star restaurants, some James Beard award-winning restaurants,” Free said. “We take the chicken sandwich to the next level, make it approachable, make it affordable and use better ingredients.”
Birdie Box’s chicken sandwiches — called “sandos” — differ from most chicken sandwich concepts. Most follow a burger-like list of components, stacking on typical ingredients like lettuce, tomato and onion with different mustards and ketchups.
“Being chefs, that kind of bores us,” Cook said. “We like a sandwich that eats well, not something that just looks good in a photograph.”
One menu item that exemplifies how Birdie Box’s sandos stand out from typical chicken sandwiches is the Maui Wowie Sando. As with all of the restaurant’s offerings, the Maui Wowie is entirely made from scratch except for the buns. The sando includes chicken breast tossed in house-made Maui Wowie sauce and is topped with Island Slaw.
“The Island Slaw is not something that you would see on a fast food menu ever, and it’s definitely a high-level slaw in its own regard,” Cook said. “We use shaved brussels and carrots with a little bit of curry white balsamic dressing, and that gives it a unique flavor profile.”
The sweet tea brine on the chicken also distinguishes the sandos from ordinary chicken sandwiches. The brine, Cook explained, is a salt-sugar solution in water that serves to keep the chicken moist and juicy, as well as adding a distinct flavor.
“We take great pride in the secret recipe that we came up with for the brine,” Free said.
Aside from sandos, the restaurant will also serve chicken strips and a variety of sides, such as fries, pickles, seasonal coleslaw and “bonuts,” which are biscuit donuts.
“We use a made-from-scratch biscuit dough and we turn that into donuts,” Free said. “It has a lot of special, secret ingredients in it, and it’s the best donut you’ll ever have.”
With the expansion of Birdie Box beyond being a pop-up, the responsibilities that come along with owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant have been something to get used to for the co-owners. The duo will split the work equally, with Cook in charge of the food truck operations and staff training, and Free taking on the role of creative director.
One of the most challenging aspects of establishing a restaurant is getting potential hires to believe that there are still good restaurant owners out there, Free said.
“A lot of people who would normally work in the culinary field are jaded by it,” Free said.
Nevertheless, the chefs feel optimistic about their grand opening.
“We’re not trying to get our hopes up and say that it’s going to be absolutely crazy, but we are prepared for it to be crazy,” Cook said. “I think that people are going to find out that we have the best chicken in town and the best service as well.”
Contact Eileen at email@example.com. Follow her at @EileenCalub.