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Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken evolves from off-season experiment to Wilmington institution

Fried chicken. Two words that are synonymous with comfort. And one word is synonymous with fried chicken in Wilmington: Walt’s.

Symanthia Lynch-Sheppard, President of Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken, with a tray just out of the fryer. Photo by Butch Comegys

Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken is a four-restaurant epicurean institution started by a pair of entrepreneurs, Harry Sheppard and Walter Samuels, in 1973.

The duo’s workplace, Idett’s Market, was the birthplace of this legendary chicken enterprise. A vacancy across the street on 22nd and Pine inspired Sheppard and Samuels to open an ice cream parlor. They did a brisk business with the frozen treats, but off-season, hot chicken rounded out the menu, and eventually wing sales outpaced cones.

By 1978, Samuels had divested from the business but let Sheppard continue using his name. Sheppard hung a shingle at 527 Vandever Ave., dubbing his new restaurant Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken. This would neither be the last move for the business nor the last phase of its evolution.

The Walt’s family tree now has two thriving branches, each executing the Flavor Crisp recipe.

Symanthia Lynch-Sheppard, president of Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken, became a widow when Sheppard died in 2011 at age 84. She operates a restaurant at 3612 Miller Rd., as well as a new ghost kitchen in Philadelphia.

Larry Fletcher and his wife, Beverly, independently own two Walt’s Chicken Express spots. The 103 N. Lincoln St. location in Little Italy opened in 2003 and 2601 Carpenter Station Rd., in Claymont, opened in 2017.

“Larry was one of my husband’s mentees,” says Lynch-Sheppard. “After 10 years, he started his own business under the Walt’s name. It’s not considered a franchise, but a name usage.”

Angela Florentino prepares chicken wings at Walt’s location on MIller Road in Wilmington. Photo by Butch Comegys.

Diversifying ownership seems only to have solidified the Walt’s reputation and deepened relationships in the community.

“It’s a Delaware tradition,” says Wilmington native Kristina Francis. “My family and I have been going to Walt’s for years.

“The week my brother died, the funeral director brought over Walt’s chicken and I thought it was the best thing ever. Food brings so much comfort…and it’s the best damn fried chicken in Delaware.”

Thanks to another family — Delaware’s most famous — Walt’s recently was mentioned on websites for Food and Wine and Forbes’.

“When President Biden was vice president, Jill stopped in,” Fletcher says. “The Secret Service would block the street for her to pick up. And Sen. Coons and Gov. Carney have been customers for years.”

Love of this simple down-home food makes Walt’s a party staple in all strata of Delaware society, from backyard barbecues to Winterthur’s annual Point-to-Point.

Lynch-Sheppard looks forward to the fancy tailgates’ return in May, despite the 4:30 a.m. alarm she sets so she can prepare for 7 a.m. order pickups.

A customer places an order to go at Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken located at the Miller Road Shopping Center in Wilmington. Photo by Butch Comegys

The flavor of the chicken results from the recipe that is – not surprisingly — a closely-guarded secret. Reviewers often identify a peppery top note, and Lynch-Sheppard confirms that the chicken is marinated. It is not particularly salty, setting it apart from other takeout menus.

Still, no chicken joint can build renown such as Walt’s has without also having killer sides.

Although Lynch-Sheppard offers slightly different sides than Fletcher, each has the standard fried chicken accompaniments: mac-and-cheese, macaroni salad (which leans sweet), and ubiquitous slow-stewed collard greens. But standard does not mean conventional.

“We do not cook with any meat in our vegetables and especially not pork,” Lynch-Sheppard emphasizes. “That’s one of our trademarks.”

Lynch-Sheppard’s Miller Road restaurant is so revered for banana pudding that people call on Monday to make sure they can get their weekly fix. Sweet potatoes and fried cabbage are other popular sides, with smothered turkey wings as a bonus meat.

Fletcher’s restaurants offer whole turkeys and get raves for their chicken and slippery dumplings. Whiting is his signature fish.

Each Walt’s differs in capacity. Lincoln Street has no tables and Carpenter Station’s small dine-in area is currently roped off. Miller Road can seat at least 24, with a meeting and banquet room that can accommodate 55. Dine-in, however, has not yet reopened.

Three pieces of fried chicken with collard greens, mac and cheese, and a piece of corn bread is a very popular lunch or dinner. Photo by Butch Comegys

The Walt’s experience is a step above a lot of takeout. Close your eyes and you can almost hear “my pleasure,” similar to the polite greeting you receive at Chick-fil-A. Since there are four Walt’s locations, it’s typical for staff to ensure a caller has reached the right restaurant.

Fletcher’s restaurants honor his mentor, Sheppard.  “We pride ourselves on our service — the little things, the old school things,” Fletcher says.

Patrons must agree. Combined, the restaurants have more than 600 Google reviews while maintaining a four-star rating.

“I’ve always loved Walt’s for so much more than the chicken, which is certainly the best ever made in Delaware,” says Eric Ruth, former restaurant critic for the The News Journal. “It’s also a great business with a good family behind it, and a place that’s been instrumental in connecting cultures. Places like Walt’s help give Wilmington’s food scene some needed soulful charm.”

The Vandever Avenue location continued to serve as the group’s flagship until Lynch-Sheppard moved it to Lancaster Avenue in 2014. The building was scheduled for demolition in late 2015.

The district’s citizens and dignitaries gathered to bid farewell to the storied structure. Harry Sheppard was remembered as a champion of his neighborhood, and a man who gave people opportunities for work and mentorship.

While COVID-19 has been a challenge to all restaurants, Lynch-Sheppard has turned obstacles into opportunities.

“One of the things that we did was acquire a lot of items at a pretty good price from our vendors, because restaurants were closed,” she says. “We did a massive food giveaway in March. Later, we were able to provide hospital workers with lunches.”

And despite the challenges of the pandemic, Fletcher feels blessed. “We appreciate the public’s support during these times,” she says.

Walt’s Flavor Crisp Chicken is also known for their desserts including from left: strawberry shortcake, banana pudding, and peach cobbler. Photo by Butch Comegys

Last December, the brand grew to include a new, delivery-only Walt’s in Philadelphia’s University City.

“This year is 45 years in the business for Walt’s. Wilmington knows us, but in Philadelphia, we are just trying to get the word out,” says Lynch-Sheppard.

Already, the Walt’s mystique is taking hold in the City of Brotherly Love.

“Customers who have tried it in Philly have given us five-star reviews.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.