“Hot bird!” It was George again, bursting into the Star-Review newsroom.
“Enright!” he boomed. “We need to get to the bottom of this faded ghost sign I just passed on Court Street. A lot of it’s washed out, but it says to ‘Eat Healthy.’ Was that even a thing years ago?”
George showed me the picture he’d just snapped. Not much to go on except for “No Oil No Fat,” painted in light blue.
“Quit gawking at my phone, we need answers, Enright!”
Where to begin? Google, of course. It turns out the ad was the vestige of a once thriving business that operated out of storefronts in Brownstone Brooklyn thirty years ago. The principal owner was Mike Weinberger, the son of a Brooklyn butcher who became a Wall Street lawyer. After a steep 1988 market nosedive, he said, “Screw this!” and opened his first shop in May 1989 on Vanderbilt Avenue. Originally called “Mike’s Chickens,” it did a brisk take-out business. Before the age of Grub Hub, success depended on customers finding your phone number. So the smartest thing Mike did was change his phone number to seven easily-remembered letters (yes, folks, back then, no area code was required for local calls). And so, if you dialed H-O-T-B-I-R-D on your rotary phone, you’d soon be tasting what some remember as the best rotisserie chicken they ever ate.
Next, I sent a mass email to my Contacts list, asking if they ever sampled Mike’s chicken. After deleting the hundreds of “message failure” notifications, I was left with a few solid leads. Barbara Auerbach recalled ordering birds based on some mouth-watering word-of-mouth in her Park Slope apartment house. Her hubby Charlie agreed, describing them as “the best game in town.” Yuk, yuk, but when I asked about ‘healthy,’ they told me to get a life. David Rubinfeld, my law enforcement partner back in the day, recalled the second Hot Bird joint on Montague Street just off Hicks in Brooklyn Heights where he picked up half a chicken with a lot of fixings on many an afternoon. But when pressed, Dave scoffed, “Healthy, shmealthy, who cares? Best chicken I ever had.” Tori Rosen remembered seeing the huge yellow signs for HOT BIRD painted on the sides of several buildings along Atlantic Avenue as the 1990s wore on. “They were really popular but I never was able to reach them because I kept dialing BIG BIRD by mistake. Whatever happened to them?”
Well, it seems Weinberger and his Birds flew the coup. He got fed up with the City bureaucracy, complaining to the press that just to open that second chicken joint on Montague, he had to hire expeditors to navigate the maze of agencies that demanded a piece of his flesh. So four years after his grand opening, he moved the business to Charlotte, North Carolina, where “expeditors” wasn’t a thing, but the number 800-Hot-Bird became just as hot.
Which reminds me of another friend. Let’s call him Joe because that’s his name. He set up a small retail business on Greenwich Street in Tribeca. In his business plan, Joe failed to take into account that his location was in the epicenter of many City enforcement agencies, particularly the Department of Consumer Affairs, whose inspectors liked to end their day by dropping by to drop violations on him. Unlike Weinberger, he didn’t have the dough or flexibility to get out of Dodge so he soldiered on, devoting a lot of window space to his Consumer Affairs registration sign. He once thought of hiring an artist to paint its contents on the side of his building until an inspector told him he’d be looking at a massive fine for “Originating a Potential Ghost Sign.”
One final note. A bar opened in 2010 on Clinton Avenue, a block away from Vanderbilt. Its owner, Frank Moe, named it Hot Bird, as an homage to the fondly-remembered chicken and to take advantage of a 15-year-old sign painted on the exterior south wall above the open-air bar, facing the always busy Atlantic Avenue. It read:
“The Best Bar-B-Q In New York”
Left at Light om Vanderbilt
Dial HOT BIRD For Delivery
The bar became a raving success, even earning a New Yorker approval as “a fine venue for modern mating.” But the sign got painted over and the bar itself got knocked down a few years ago to build, what else, more condos. Ironically, if you search the location on Google Maps you can see a pop-up box referring to the small business that once sat in a small space next to the Hot Bird Bar: “Little Brother BBQ–Permanently Closed,” it says, a virtual Google Ghost Sign.
In 2015, Matt Green’s I’m Just Walkin’ blog featured a photo of the same faded Court Street ad that started this ad-venture. Three years later, Mike Weinberger posted a comment about it: “I opened three [Hot Birds] in Charlotte…They all closed and today I live in New Orleans. Every now and again I google ‘Hot Bird’ just to see what comes up. What a wild ride my Hot Bird restaurant venture proved to be.”
Hopefully, Mike will come across this piece and I’ll hook him up with George for a pow-wow on healthy chicken. Well, I’m hungry. Think I’ll grab me some oily fat rotisserie at Food Bazaar.