By Bruce Stambaugh
Henry Schlabach, Jr. knows a thing or two about barbequing chicken. He should. He’s been at it for 45 years.
The 72-year-old Schlabach, who lives between Berlin and Millersburg, seems to get as much satisfaction from helping his customers as he does making the chicken. Schlabach’s reputation for preparing excellent barbequed chicken has spread far and wide over those many years with some customers coming from 60 miles or more. He mainly grills chicken for families, organizations and wedding receptions.
Schlabach said he normally barbeques an average of 10,000 chicken halves a year. He has relied solely on word-of-mouth advertising.
“In all those years,” Schlabach said matter-of-factly, “I haven’t spent one penny on advertising.”
For Schlabach, the season for barbequing chicken runs from April through November. Not surprisingly, he is particularly hectic around holidays.
On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, for example, he was busy barbequing 740 chicken halves and 300 chicken quarters. Schlabach said he usually barbeques the chicken in batches of 500 halves at a time, 25 halves to a rack.
“That takes us four to five hours to do that many,” Schlabach said.
Of course, Schlabach doesn’t take on all this alone. His sons, Tim and Mark, help out. They started helping him by making the sauce when they each were around 10-years old. Today, they are grown men with families themselves. Now the grandsons have joined the crew.
“I couldn’t do it without their help,” Schlabach said. If an organization orders chicken, representatives from that group also assist in the hot and sweaty production.
Grandson Charlie Schlabach said he likes to help for three reasons. “I get paid, it’s fun, and we get to eat chicken, too,” he said with a smile to match that of his grandpa.
The Memorial Day effort was a combination fundraiser for the Walnut Creek little league team and making chicken for high school graduation parties. The crew gathered at 5:30 a.m. to begin so they could be completed by mid-morning.
Schlabach started his chicken barbequing with a portable pit on a trailer.
“We could only do 150 halves at time with that,” he said. Schlabach has progressed to two roof-covered barbeque pits built behind a garage near his residence.
Schlabach began his barbequing career for the Shreve Businessmen’s Association that sold barbequed chicken at the Wayne County Fair. At that time, Schlabach ran a restaurant in Shreve.
“The guy that was supposed to make the chicken quit doing it,” Schlabach explained. “I don’t know why they called me to do it, but they did.” That first year he made 750 halves. Last year they sold 10,000 halves at that fair.
Schlabach said he uses a combination of vinegar, butter, Worcestershire sauce, salt and water, though he didn’t provide the specifics of the recipe. He still uses the original wire-meshed racks that were locally made to barbeque the chicken.
Schlabach is picky about the charcoal he uses, too. He drives to Brookville, Pennsylvania and buys a season’s worth of Humphrey Charcoal.
He said getting the fire hot, and then turning the racks with the cooking chickens is the key to ensuring good chicken. Of course, spraying the sauce with pressure sprayers is just as important. The most chickens ever done by Schlabach at one time was 2,000, which took about eight hours to complete.
With the demand for barbequed chicken growing, Schlabach has seen a lot of competition come and go over the years. This year, he said, there aren’t so many people making chicken.
“It’s just plain hard work,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow. He thinks the craving for chicken in the area could possibly be due to the high number of benefit sales conducted locally. For the record, the Walnut Creek baseball team sold all their chicken.
That’s what Jr. Schlabach wanted to hear. For him, all the effort he put into the day, even with its early start, was worth it. And as a bonus, he got as much satisfaction from working with his family as he did barbequing his famously delicious chicken.
This article first appeared in the June 14, 2010 Holmes Bargain Hunter.