Love me tendr: How Stephen Council brought fried chicken to NU campus culture

By Jake Holland
Medill Reports

Stephen Council is no stranger to fried chicken. The 19-year-old Medill sophomore grew up in southern Virginia, where his father would sometimes make it, juice and grease dripping right off the bone. It wasn’t until a cold December night last year, however, that Council toyed around with the idea of cooking up his own.

He was studying for finals with his friend and Communication sophomore Erin Zhang, and it was approaching midnight in Northwestern’s Main Library. They bemoaned the lack of late-night dining options — Fran’s and Lisa’s, sure, and Burger King off campus, but not much else.

Rather than study, Council and Zhang hopped on a Google Doc and hammered out a business plan. In a couple of hours, they had everything — the concept, the name, the sauces. Later that month, the two went home and experimented with sauces and chicken styles. By the time the New Year rolled around, everything was set. tendr was born.

“We bought that fryer for $30, and we’ve probably fried $1,300 worth of chicken in it,” Council says, smiling. “It was almost like we had to make it worth it. We thought, ‘Why not do this?’”

“The late nite chicken bite”

Council, dressed in dark blue jeans and a light gray hoodie, gestures around the stark white kitchen in the Shepard basement. He points to a small cupboard chock full of Target bags, a simple Hamilton Beach fryer, Styrofoam cups for the chicken, vegetable oils and all-purpose flour.

Council, with a head of curly brown hair and bright blue eyes, stands 6-foot-3. Underneath his quiet demeanor, Council is a highly social college sophomore, an active player on Northwestern’s ultimate Frisbee team and an editor at The Daily Northwestern.

For tendr, he and Zhang — who both have a work study job in The Daily’s business office — buy ingredients in bulk from Sam’s Club. The last time they cooked, in late September, they bought 20 pounds of boneless chicken breast, family-size spice bottles and buttermilk.

Council estimates they made $300 in total sales, their largest night yet.

“It was crazy that we had gotten to a place where we had 15 people waiting in line at one point,” he says. “At the beginning, it was just me and my friends in a basement.”

tendr sells chicken sandwiches for $3 and “tender nuggets” — pieces of juicy chicken that are bigger than an average nugget but not quite as thick as a tender — for $5. Council says because they marinate their chicken for 24 hours and because it’s consumed right out of the fryer, it tastes a lot fresher than what someone could find at a fast food joint.

The sandwich, which they added to the menu in April, consists of a bigger piece of chicken and pickles sandwiched in a soft, mildly sweet Hawaiian roll. Yum yum sauce, a Japanese steakhouse staple made from mayonnaise and tomato paste, rounds it out and is a fan-favorite dipping sauce for the tender nuggets, too.

From southern Virginia to the North Shore

Council, the youngest of two, grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia (population: 15,000), home to the College of William & Mary. His British mother teaches English at the college, and his American father works as a therapist.

In Williamsburg, colonial estates stand beside modern suburban homes, and kids from middle-class families learn alongside low-income students. Council, who describes his upbringing as middle class, got good grades and excelled on his school’s soccer team. When it was time to apply to college, he was drawn to Northwestern’s strong journalism and economics programs.

“My town was very small, and I feel like a lot of my values are oriented around kindness, which I felt there was a lot of growing up,” Council says. “But I wanted to get away from Virginia, to experience something else.”

“So many people show up for him”

James Pollard, Council’s roommate this year, says at first he thought the fried chicken business was “just this goofy thing” that might or might not happen. Now, Council and Zhang experiment with different sauces, including a Chick-fil-A imitation. Council, who made fried Oreos and funnel cake for his family in high school, says he’s open to adding them to the menu, but plans to stick mostly to fried chicken.

He doesn’t have any grand ambitions to expand to other campuses like coffee startup BrewBike has done. Council and Zhang have agreed they’ll stop frying by graduation — to them, it’s more of a hobby than a long-term business venture — and they don’t plan to sell the business to anyone else.

“We always take a few weeks between sales because it’s pretty exhausting,” Council says. “But it’s really fun to know that we can make delicious chicken and that people enjoy the product.”

Pollard says he saw all types of Northwestern students — freshmen from Council’s orientation group, members of the Ultimate team, total strangers — lined up last month for chicken.

“It speaks to the way people see Stephen, that there’s so many people that show up for him,” Pollard says. “I don’t think tendr would be what it is if it weren’t him and Erin behind it.”

Photo at top: Erin Zhang (left) and Stephen Council (right) cook fried chicken in the Shepard basement. Council, a southern Virginia native, launched tendr with Zhang in the winter of his freshman year. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Zhou)