Bites of Passion: Su loves being on the business end of a toothpick.
Bites of Passion: Su loves being on the business end of a toothpick. Credit: Charles Steck

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“Yummy, yummy. Sooo good in the tummy.” Between 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. seven days a week, David Su repeats his mantra twice every 30 seconds, maybe 600 times a day. Su, an assistant manager at the Union Station branch of Kelly’s Cajun Grill, has spent 12 years—alongside a phalanx of fellow employees, including his wife—aggressively lobbying passers-by to try Kelly’s free chicken samples.

For some, food sampling is merely a tasty distraction in the aisles of Whole Foods, a way to taste that Dutch Parrano you’d been curious about or see whether there’s any difference between organic and conventional pineapples. But in a city where the ratio of low-paid interns to high-priced food can be disheartening, food samples are often the only way to experience the high life, one bite at a time.

Chicken samples have been food-court staples since the latter came to prominence in the early 1980s. Kelly’s Cajun Grill has been a leading chicken-sample proponent since 1987, even if Panda Express, often its cross-court rival, claims to have premiered the gambit at an opening in Glendale, Calif., in 1983. Of course, neither company invented sampling as a marketing scheme, but as pioneers of quick-service Asian cuisine in food courts, they had skeptics, especially with all the confusing names for their bird varieties—Cajun, teriyaki, bourbon, “house special.” On-the-fly pizza was one thing, as was sit-down Asian chow mein. But something in between? Not so much.

Today, Panda Express churns out “roughly 1,125 samples in food court stores per day nationwide,” says the company’s former spokesperson, Crystal Fukumoto. “I don’t know exact numbers [of samples], but it definitely helps,” says Anthony Napoliello, vice president of development for Kelly’s.

Su gives me a bewildered “huh?” when I ask how many chicken samples he bangs out every day. “Union Station’s store goes through 400 pounds of chicken daily, about 40 of which is for sampling,” says Napoliello. “They’re aggressive samplers over there; that number is definitely on our high end.”

In fact, in 1999, when Napoliello opened a Kelly’s in the Ronald Reagan Building’s food court, he used the “Su model” to train employees. Pushing the “yummy” and “tummy” rhyme scheme, he tried to make high school kids schmooze potential samplers. But the kids weren’t having it. “At that age, they’re too embarrassed to put themselves out there like David,” Napoliello says. “He’s in his own league.”

At most stores, where there is no Su to guide them, the chicken must sell itself. The samples start life not far from where their sources end theirs, at a poultry plant in the Carolinas where boneless dark meat—typically leg and thigh, since white breast meat dries up—is tossed in what Napoliello calls “washer and dryer-like machines.” Hundreds of pounds marinate in Kelly’s signature sweet, soy-sauce-based “Cajun” formulation.

As wet bird parts frolic in heavy-duty tumblers, they’re infused with five times the flavor potency of meats that have been marinated conventionally. “At home, chicken just sits in a plastic bag, maybe hitting a 3 percent retention rate,” Napoliello says. “At our 15 percent, every 40 pounds of bird contains 6 pounds of sauce.”

Once the oozing chicken arrives at individual Kelly’s stores, it’s baked, then grilled and basted with even more sauce. Finally it’s cut into bite-sized, cloud-shaped chunks. The coating is so important because samplers can base the decision on where to dine on split-second bites. “Years ago, sauces were full of MSG, but we’ve got to be careful with that now,” says Napoliello.   

Still, he says, the samples are high in sodium. Salt, though, may be the least of a chicken-sample devotee’s worries. According to Diane Van, the USDA’s deputy director for food safety, “food shouldn’t sit out for more than two hours.” Keeping samples in a heated chafing dish above 140 degrees is OK, she says, but anything just hanging out at room temp for more than two hours is inviting bacteria. “Within 20 minutes, the bacteria count can double,” Van notes. Napoliello assures me that each store keeps temperature logs. “Nothing should go below 135 degrees—that’s the danger zone,” he says. “Chafing dishes stay above that.” 

At Kelly’s Cajun Grill in the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, chicken samples don’t seem to last two hours. On a weekend before Christmas, one visored Kelly’s employee hustles through an entire bowl of chicken samples in five minutes. Back at the counter, she hands over her bowl to be refilled; the staff prioritizes filling it over actual customer orders. People in line pause, respecting the holy transaction.

Richard Buscemi, a communications major at Catholic University, pounces on the fresh batch. He and his friend chat about taste and texture. “Pentagon City basically sucks,” he says. “Wheaton Plaza, now that’s where it’s at.” The mall, only a few Metro stops from his campus, has four of what Buscemi calls “Asian-styled” carryouts, and the competition for chicken-sample takers is fierce. “They’re good, too. Much better than these,” Buscemi says, waving at the Kelly’s employee. “At Wheaton, you walk down the food court and grab like six or seven at once. I take them all. Yes, it’s fat of me, but hey.” A few vendors away, Buscemi zeros in on Texas Bar-B-Q Factory, with its ready-to-go samples sitting behind the counter, already pierced with toothpicks. “You gotta ask for those,” he says, with the gravitas of a man discussing matters of state. “But man, are they good.”

Buscemi’s right—the Texas Bar-B-Q Factory’s samples are less slimy, and they actually taste sort of like chicken, not just grizzled fattiness doused in syrup.

But Texas Bar-B-Q Factory’s line peaks at two or three people. That’s because at Pentagon City, Kelly’s has a monopoly on food-court sampling. “Kelly’s has the sampling license here. We can’t technically sample,” says a manager at Texas Bar-B-Q who wished not to be named.(Calls to the Simon Property Group, which manages Pentagon City, were unreturned.)

After Buscemi leaves, I do another lap, grabbing a few more samples. Nobody tsk-tsks or eye-curses me. It would be the same at any other food court. “I don’t really care if people come back twice,” says Su. “We’re not counting every time you go by and grab, that’s for sure,” says Napoliello.

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