The Greenwood Volunteer Fire Company’s famous barbecued chicken will be back this summer, but less often. The fire company is cutting back the number of days the stand will be open.
The chicken returns this year on Saturday, April 30. The fundraiser draws people from all over the area, and for decades has also been a pit stop for people on the way to the beach.
The reduction in days is not because of a lack of demand, but a lack of staffing. Company President Justin Boyce said the volunteer who has cooked chicken for them every Friday for the past several years is no longer able to help out as regularly. That means they can only count on being open Saturdays and Sundays this season, although they do hope to do some extra days for outside groups this year.
“Right now, we really don’t have an answer good enough, to how we’re going to make that work,” Boyce said. The fire company hopes to pick up the pace again with a full slate of Fridays next year.
Despite the change, the company is actually not cutting back on the number of days it runs the stand. Traditionally, Fridays have been a day that outside organizations like church groups or softball teams come in and sell chicken as a fundraiser. But they still need a cook for that genuine Greenwood Fire Company chicken taste, and the company also provides a cashier.
“My hope is to find somebody that can do Fridays, but it’s not that easy,” Boyce said.
Even though Fridays are for outside groups, the fire company will still take a good-sized fundraising hit, Boyce said, because it splits the profits with the groups on those days.
“It’s just kind of what we had to do. We don’t want to tell the public that we’re going to be open, and not, and back and forth,” Boyce said.
The fire company has talked about ways to make up the fundraising, like maybe a beef dinner or a cash bash, but they haven’t decided on anything yet, he said.
A beloved tradition
You can tell it’s springtime in Greenwood when the smoke carries the smell of barbecued chicken in the window. It’s a powerful, mouth-watering form of advertising and those who don’t get there early enough may find the chicken sold out.
The fire company’s Facebook post announcing the opening date last year garnered about 1,200 shares.
Sharptown resident Ashley Halfacre said she goes out of her way to go to Greenwood for the chicken, as often as every week or two despite the 45-minute drive and the fact that they're sometimes sold out when she gets there. She can't wait for it to open again.
"Their chicken, oh my goodness, it's phenomenal, I mean there's nothing like it with their sauce and the way that they cook it," she said, "and everything's just so good and tender."
She recalled the first time she tried it. "When I first took my bite, I was in literal heaven."
"I've been craving it all winter," she said. She was disappointed when told about the reduced days because Fridays are when she usually makes the trip, but said she'll figure out a way.
One Rhode Island couple sometimes drives all the way to Sussex County just for the chicken. Jerry Sharples, a fire department dispatcher in Rhode Island, said he lived in Delmar for a number of years and was a member of the Delmar Fire Department.
“It’s awesome. So every time we come down and make a visit with our friends, we make it a point to do it when the Greenwood chicken is in full swing,” he said.
But their trip is not always scheduled around a visit. Sometimes he and his wife just drive down, get the chicken, then drive back, he said. He shrugged off the commute. “It’s only five hours,” he said, noting they do a lot of traveling and he likes to support fire departments.
But can’t they get chicken like that in Rhode Island?
“Absolutely not,” Sharples said. “No fire departments up here at all do anything like the fire departments do down on the Eastern Shore.”
An out-of-town blogger wrote in 2012, “Greenwood celebrates three things about which they are justifiably proud – a great local ingredient (chicken), a simple but marvelous recipe (an unusual barbeque sauce) and a superb technique. If the Delmarva peninsula was like one of those countries where traditional craftspeople are designated ‘living national treasures,’ the folks at Greenwood would be high on the list.”
There have also been efforts to mimic the Greenwood recipe as closely as possible.
“Chicken barbecue is a way of life in southern Delaware, and few have been doing it longer or better than the guys at the Greenwood Fire Company,” Patricia Talorico wrote for the Washington Post in 2001.
It’s not clear exactly what year the tradition started, but one barbecue veteran told Talorico it had been going since around 1960. Boyce, too, put it somewhere “back in the 60s.” A 1999 News Journal article had it as “more than 40 years,” which would put the start somewhere in the 1950s. (If any readers can pinpoint this more precisely, drop us a line.)
While the barbecue stand has been around for a long time, it hasn’t always been run by the fire company. Not all that long ago, it would have been just as accurate to call it VFW chicken. Boyce said the Lions Club originally started it and was then joined by the VFW. These organizations would give the fire company a weekend as a fundraiser, according to a 1993 newspaper article. Eventually, Boyce said, it became a partnership between the VFW and the fire company, until the fire company bought it out about a decade ago.
The pandemic took a bite out of the chicken trade
Like restaurants and other businesses, the fire company’s barbecue fundraiser has taken somewhat of a hit the past couple of years. Boyce said they did about half a year of takeout-only in 2020, and then a full season of takeout-only last year.
“We did alright … we didn’t do as good as we would have hoped, but everybody got a little jammed up,” he said.
The fire company is also not immune from the rising prices that are becoming so familiar this year, with the price of chicken and other supplies going up. The price of a platter will reflect that, according to Boyce.
This year, the picnic tables are back open for eating on site. “We do encourage people to come back this year, if you want to sit and eat and enjoy it with us, then we’re looking forward to that this year,” Boyce said.
“We’ve been very blessed and very fortunate to have the business we do, and have the people that support us … the way they do.”