Meet the local chef determined to upstage Popeyes — from his backyard

Mel Canares’ hefty, delicious fried chicken sandwich. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

After the Popeyes chicken sandwich craze swept the internet last year, Mel Canares was left feeling a little dumbfounded. For all the mania — the long lines, the impassioned Twitter wars, the out-of-stock shock — Canares just knew he could make a superior fried chicken sandwich.

So he set out to do that, working in his South San Francisco home kitchen with a single pan and vivid flavor memories of the best fried chicken sandwich he’s ever eaten. (A smoked fried chicken sandwich served at Broken Record in San Francisco, where he worked during culinary school.) He started with a Popeyes carbon copy — fried chicken, pickles and sauce — but quickly fine tuned it to pay homage to the best he’s ever had, creating a spiced marinade that mimicked the smokiness of Broken Record’s version and a jalapeño coleslaw dressed in honey vinaigrette. He put up a post on Instagram, inviting friends to come by to try his creation for free. Close to 20 people showed up.

Mel Canares assembling fried chicken sandwiches at his backyard pop-up in South San Francisco. (Photo courtesy Zack Fernandes)

Several months later and amid the pandemic shutdown, Canares got laid off from his corporate cooking job and turned his fried chicken sandwich side hustle into a popular pop-up. This Sunday, he sold between 150 and 200 sandwiches out of his backyard. His busiest weekend, he sold 325 sandwiches.

People drive from as far away as Vallejo and Berkeley for Canares’ sandwich, a hefty, expertly crunchy piece of buttermilk-marinated chicken topped with slaw and a smoky mesquite sauce on a toasted brioche bun. It rivals many of the fried chicken sandwiches flooding local restaurant menus right now.

“I think it’s the whole comfort food aspect of it,” Canares said of fried chicken sandwiches’ surge in popularity. “You know you’re going to get something good and it shouldn’t disappoint you. It’s like grabbing a burger. It’s not going to fail you.”

Canares double-dredges chicken thighs in a buttermilk and hot sauce marinade, plus unbleached wheat flour for a subtle nutty flavor. He asks customers to preorder via Instagram and then to also call him 30 minutes before they arrive so every piece of chicken is fried fresh and doesn’t sit around. You enter his backyard through a side alleyway, the entrance hung with the same COVID-19 and social distancing reminders as in restaurant windows, pay via Venmo ($10 each) and take your sandwich to go.

Mel Canares‘ backyard pop-up has grown through Instagram and word of mouth. (Photos courtesy Zack Fernandes)

Canares, 27, moved to the Bay Area from his native Cebu in the Philippines when he was 3 years old. He grew up watching his uncles and grandmother cook, instilling in him a love of cooking that prompted him to enroll in City College of San Francisco’s culinary program. While in school, he interned at San Francisco favorite Nopa and worked in the Broken Record kitchen.

Canares went on to work for Stanford University Catering for several years and then Bon Appétit Management Company, through which he’s worked for the last five years as a corporate chef at Genentech. On the side, he sold homemade food, including smoked chicken sisig and crispy tacos filled with Filipino chicken adobo, his response to the quesabirria craze. But it was the the fried chicken sandwiches that consistently sold out.

“I thought, ‘If these chicken sandwiches sell out every time, I have a blueprint here,’” Canares said.

So he purchased a fryer and a griddle and set up a backyard kitchen for his pop-ups, all promoted via Instagram and word of mouth.

After shelter-in-place took effect in March, his Genentech job shifted to making pre-made meals, working one week on and two weeks off. He stopped selling food out of his home, worried about the coronavirus. Then, in August, he got the call that his job would be cut. He thought about that blueprint and resumed selling fried chicken sandwiches.

Canares now makes more money from two or three pop-ups than he did from two weeks of pay from Genentech.

Is it better than Popeyes? Yes. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Canares hopes to make enough to eventually rent or purchase a food truck, which would legalize his home-based business. He’s part of the growing, under-the-table economy of home-based food businesses across the Bay Area.

“I like to call it a new cultural renaissance,” Canares said of the boom in home food businesses. “All these people that make really good food, they don’t have to have a restaurant, they don’t have to pay the expensive rent when they can just do it out of their home.”

He was inspired in part by this movement, which long predated COVID but has surged as people struggling financially have searched for new ways to bring in income.

“I’m just a simple guy making chicken sandwiches in my backyard. I feel like I’m onto something here,” Canares said. “If people are willing to drive across the bridge or from San Jose or Vallejo to come try my sandwich, I need to have an establishment of my own.”

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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