The new owner of Rudy Jr.’s Chicken Man restaurant knows exactly what she’s going to say when the restaurant hits its 50th birthday this week.
“Rudy, we finally did it.”
Namesake Rudy Wagner Jr. didn’t live to see that anniversary. He died in late 2015. The restaurant has been kept alive by employee Janet Wash, who also took care of Rudy in his final days when he was suffering from multiple illnesses, including pneumonia.
She’s now caring for Rudy’s widow, too.
“One of his dreams was to have it hit the 50th year,” Wash says.
Saturday they will celebrate with a big bash and lots of food. From noon to 8 p.m. they’ll have a $20 all-you-can-eat buffet of customer favorites: Chicken, of course, ribs, barbecued beans, garlic bread and more. Music, a mini classic car show and an outdoor party are in the works
If you’re not familiar with this Fresno icon, Chicken Man is that stuck-in-another-era restaurant at Hughes and Weber. It was started by the elder Rudy at First Street and Olive Avenue. It’s been at its current location for the past 33 years.
Its age is showing: It’s still got that brown and yellow paint and the old-school image of a flying green chicken on its sign.
Still, the restaurant’s food gets glowing reviews on Yelp.com.
There have been a few changes since Wash took over. The restaurant finally started taking credit and debit cards about three months before Rudy died. Rudy had figured that if they operated just fine for 48 1/2 years without plastic, they didn’t need it.
And chicken and waffles is now on the menu, with bacon mixed into the waffle batter. Rudy never got that excited about that dish.
“Nah,” he’d say, Wash remembers. “He didn’t think it was going to make it.”
But it sells well, she says.
Chicken Man is celebrating its success while simultaneously facing more challenges. The restaurant is cut off from customers west of Highway 99 now that the nearby Clinton Avenue overpass has been ripped down. It will be rebuilt as as workers realign the highway, making room for California’s high-speed rail.
Sales have dropped about 50 percent since the overpass was bulldozed.
“It’s hurting us badly,” Wash says.
The celebration will be bittersweet without Rudy there. She still misses him.
And even though he’s gone, she’s still talking to him: “Rudy, we did make it.”