Music City Hot Chicken claims to be the first Nashville hot chicken restaurant to open in Colorado.
“Before we opened, we did some research, and outside of having a Nashville-style sandwich on the menu, we didn’t come across any specialty restaurants,” co-owner Sam Graf said.
Graf, 38, and his older brother Jordan, 40, opened Music City Hot Chicken at 111 W. Prospect Road in their hometown of Fort Collins in 2016. Sam had frequently visited a friend in Nashville over the years, fallen in love with the city’s spicy style of chicken, and then developed his own recipe so he didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to satisfy his craving.
“Our Nashville hot recipe now is pretty much the original that I had come up with,” Sam said.
It was good timing as Nashville hot began to capture the palates of people across the country, including Colorado, where restaurants started adding it to their menus.
That same year, national fast food chain KFC added a Nashville chicken sandwich to its menu and began advertising for it. “KFC did all the educational leg work for us with the commercials, and marketing, which helped grow familiarity with what hot chicken was,” Sam said.
Music City was an instant hit. “At the time, it felt like we created a monster,” Sam said. “It was very busy and stressful and far exceeded what we expected. One of the first things I bought for the bar was a cribbage board for slow days and afternoons, but it’s safe to say we never used it.”
In 2021, the brothers opened a satellite location inside TRVE Brewing, 227 Broadway, in Denver, where they serve a scaled-down version of their menu from a small walk-up kitchen in the back.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which opened in Nashville 80 years ago, is credited as the birthplace of Nashville hot chicken, which was typically served bone-in with toast or bread. It’s said that hot pepper on fried chicken was initially a punishment for womanizing Thornton Prince, the founder of Prince’s, according to the website for the restaurant, which is still open and busy.
Sam, who has worked in the service industry since he was 14, came up with his own recipe using inspiration from previous winners of the Music City Hot Chicken Festival, which is held every year in Nashville amongst amateur chefs; the winning recipe is posted online. He would also talk with chefs on their smoke breaks at places like Bolton’s Hot Chicken, to try to crack the secret recipe.
Music City Hot Chicken serves fried chicken sandwiches, tender, whole wings, half chickens and more, and diners can choose from seven levels of heat, ranging from a mild Southern classic to “Flammable Solid,” made with habaneros, ghost peppers and the Carolina Reaper pepper. Most people stick to the Nashville heat level, which is a step above the hot, Sam added.
“There are some people that are just monsters, and love the ‘Flammable Solid’ level, but a majority of the people that order it get chicken tenders to try it or wager a bar bet,” said Steven Skinner, the assistant general manager at Music City Hot Chicken’s Denver location.
Skinner was a regular at the Fort Collins restaurant before he started working for the Graf brothers. So when they opened the spot inside TRVE Brewing, “they basically asked me if I wanted to get paid for the time I spent there because I ate there so much during their first year,” Skinner said. “And 6-and-a-half years later, I still eat it every single day.”
That dedicated following — some customers drive from Cheyenne, Denver, Loveland, Colorado Springs and Greeley — is partially what convinced the brothers to open in Denver, But mainly, they said, it’s because they loved the owners of TRVE, the heavy metal-themed brewery. “If that opportunity didn’t present itself, I can’t say for certain that we would’ve opened in Denver at all, but going into it with an already established business made that decision a lot easier,” Sam said.
Nick Nunns, co-founder of TRVE Brewing, said Music City Hot Chicken’s Fort Collins spot was one of the first places they sold beer to, and he got to know Jordan and Sam on his many pilgrimages for hot chicken.
“It’s been really incredible to see how much things have shifted since they opened in the taproom,” Nunns said. “We started seeing a whole new group of people coming in that we hadn’t seen before. We’re now open for lunch on select weekdays and brunch on the weekends. Our ‘curve’ of business is a lot more smooth than it used to be when the whole taproom would clear out around dinnertime.”
Even with the built-in clientele at the brewery, however, Music City Hot Chicken faces some stiff competition in Denver since there are more hot chicken places than in Fort Collins.
In fact, Music City is one of 32 spicy chicken purveyors that made it into The Denver Post’s annual March madness food bracket challenge, which began on March 1. With help from readers who vote each week, that list was pared down to 16 spots on March 8, and voting is now open to narrow things down to the Elite 8, which will be announced on March 15.
Sam said he’s honored for the recognition, curious to find out who will win, and hopes the home field advantage will give them a leg up. “We put a lot of care and attention into our recipes and the food we create,” he said. “There are some other awesome hot chicken spots in Denver, but I think it helps that we’re Colorado locals, compared to a lot of them.”
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