It’s a new day at the famed Dino’s Famous Chicken (formerly Dino’s Chicken and Burgers) on Pico Boulevard. Or, rather, will be soon — even though it doesn’t look like much has changed at the 53-year-old restaurant. Fans are still lining up at the takeout window for heaping plates of spiced, grilled chicken served on a bed of fries, or for burgers or pastrami burritos on the quick. But soon the Dino’s universe will shift, ever so slightly, ushering in untold changes as the family-owned company seeks to find a new path forward post-pandemic.
Dino’s, after more than half a century, is adding wings to the menu.
A small deal? For some, maybe. But wings are the first new chicken menu item to make it into the Dino’s rotation since… ever. And that means a lot of changes, many unseen by regulars, and a lot of thought about what Dino’s will become as the restaurant world shifts in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“Coming out of this pandemic, all of us are really grateful that we’re still here,” says Nicole Pitsos, one of the four daughters of founder Demetrios Pantazis, who died in 2017. The sisters now collectively run the restaurant group, with locations in LA, Pico Rivera, Pomona, Azusa, and Huntington Park, though it’s the original on Pico Boulevard that is the most well known — and the most viable, thanks to a paid-off mortgage and lots of history.
The restaurant kept busy during the pandemic with takeout orders from loyal fans, and even managed to retain its entire 25-person staff, albeit with some reduced hours along the way. They held on, in part, by beginning to embrace the future, like adding delivery and takeout app DoorDash just a week before broad lockdowns began on March 15, 2020.
“Thank god we did that,” says Katerina. The foresight enabled business to continue through the year’s many dips and pivots. “You almost need one employee just for the to-go orders now, that’s how busy it got,” she says. Since then, ownership has begun to rethink its entire approach, after decades of slow expansion and low prices. The wings are a part of that new Dino’s experience, and the team is looking into bottling its proprietary sauce and seasonings too, diversifying into shelf-stable products just like bigger restaurant groups like Momofuku.
“We need to rebrand, remodel, get everything super organized so that we can expand,” says Maria. “Everything we’ve been wanting to do for so long, we’ve got to do it now. That’s how we stay in business. All these other people are coming up with new ideas, we’ve got to do the same.”
It’s all complicated, if exciting. For starters: How do you add a new fried chicken item to the menu when the kitchen is already running at capacity? “We have such a small kitchen, but that’s what comes with the magic of being here for 50 years,” says Konstantina. “It’s old school.” A full kitchen rebuild was deemed too expensive, so for now workers are preparing to make do with one less fryer for french fries. That could increase wait times slightly, but it may be a worthy financial trade-off. “Everything has gone up,” says Nicole, from purveyor pricing to packaging for to-go orders. So far the prices haven’t.
To help make the menu modifications just a little bit smoother, Dino’s Famous Chicken has brought on chef Royce Burke. Together they worked up a trio of new wing options, marinated in a thickened version of the Dino’s red sauce, and spiced to still feel like a menu item that’s been a part of the collection for years. It’s a new type of venture for Burke as well, having mostly consulted for new companies and hosted events and pop-ups like his long-running Secret Lasagna over the years. But as with everyone else, he says the industry beneath his feet is shifting.
“I have so much more fun doing stuff like this,” says Burke. “A lot of people ask me if I’m going to open something else, but I think Andy Ricker put it really well: Someone’s going to figure out the next restaurant model, and it’s not going to be me.” Instead he’s choosing to lend a hand to an LA legend.
Soon enough, Burke and the Dino’s team will further expand the menu beyond wings, adding chicken tenders and maybe even a fried chicken sandwich, should the tiny original kitchen allow. There’s even talk of physical expansion into untapped markets like the Antelope Valley or out of state, but given the year that’s befallen so many small businesses, physical storefronts are risky right now. Then again any kind of change has, in the past, been slow to take place for Dino’s, so maybe it’s time to embrace it all.
“We want to see it get big, but keep it authentic,” says Nicole. “One step at a time. We don’t want to overextend ourselves like some others maybe did, especially because of what we’ve just gone through.”
“We don’t want to lose the soul of Dino’s,” adds Maria. “We want every restaurant we open to feel like the original.” Adding wings next month is a good place to start.