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Omaha Magazine

Keeping It Dirty With the Dirty Birds

Aug 27, 2021 04:21PM ● By Chris Bowling
chicken and waffles on silver baking tray

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Past coffee shops and kitchens, people sipping juice and cocktails, Toby Keith’s baritone voice booms off fresh drywall. In the back of the new Blackstone food hall, Matthew “Moses” Moseley, Dan Whalen, and Mike West lean over vats of fry oil inside a 100-square-foot kitchen.

As customers walk up, they take in the twangy guitar bends of ’90s pop country and huge Pride and Black Lives Matter flags hanging alongside hand-drawn signs promising “Big Ass Chunks of Watermelon” or proclaiming The Drew Carey Show is better than Friends and Seinfeld combined (note: this magazine does not endorse such opinions).

 Then there’s the restaurant’s sign, featuring graffiti-like lettering and a giant yellow chicken, under which the three owners plate deviled eggs, serve fist-sized scoops of potato salad, and fry chicken (and vegan alternatives).

In many ways, the restaurant’s appearance reflects a maximalist, scattered, complicated society. But it succeeds because of what they put on the plate.

e can always get to a base level with somebody,” Moseley said. “Because…no matter whose story it is, that story can intersect with fried chicken.”

That was the goal of Dirty Birds when it opened in January 2021. Owners Moseley, 36, and Whalen, 33, with West, 32, who joined the team shortly after, had success doing pop-ups around Omaha. In November 2020, they were approached to open a stall in The Switch food hall. Sales took off, lines formed, and eventually the restaurant expanded to an 800-square-foot former bar area in the same building.

It’s been a wild ride, but that’s what they expected.

Moseley and Whalen met in 2017 as line cooks at Kitchen Table in downtown Omaha. Moseley had spent years cooking for touring bands and working in cities like Atlanta, but he was ready to decide his next move. Whalen had a biology degree from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and spent his days pulling sandwich-lined sheet pans out of commercial-sized ovens.

When management at The Switch asked them to open their own place, Moseley and Whalen drained their bank accounts and borrowed money. Suddenly they were moving in and wondering how they’d pay bills, including the rent on their three-bedroom Dundee apartment.

“I remember the first week, I was panicking,” Whalen said. “Because it was like, we haven't seen any money come in yet. How are we going to pay for food for next week?”

Instead, they had the opposite problem: People came in droves and it became clear they needed help.

West had cooked with Moseley for touring bands such as Trans-Siberian Orchestra. With COVID-19 and no tours, Moseley asked if he’d come up from Kansas City to help with the pop-ups, and eventually cover their last shifts as line cooks at Kitchen Table while they started Dirty Birds.

But the more Moseley and Whalen struggled to keep up with booming interest, the more it became clear West would get roped into the burgeoning business.

“I was only gonna be up here for 14 days,” said West, who’s in the process of transitioning from employee to the third partner in Dirty Birds’ ownership. “But after that first day, they were like, ‘Yo. You aren’t going anywhere.’”

He moved into Moseley and Whalen’s Dundee apartment. They bought him a bed and sheets. The three have been together nonstop since, cooking and learning how to keep up with a rapidly evolving business.

That’s meant learning the basics in small business ownership: paying employees, buying insurance, buying food, hiring a lawyer, and doing the day-to-day accounting that keeps the doors open.

As the only person with a college degree, those jobs mostly fell on Whalen. Not that higher education helped him learn how to cut through mountains of receipt paper, navigate programs like Quickbooks, or deposit thousands of dollars in cash to pay sales taxes. But Whalen, a silent type who doesn’t like to complain, makes it work.

“He doesn't stay out of the trenches either,” West said. “So he's like in the heat of it, and also, you know, that's in the back of his mind.”

“And he's got 10 minutes to get it done because he's got to go get elbow deep in some f#*kin’ tater salad,” Moseley said, smiling at Whalen.

Clearly, they’ve had no problem getting people excited about their food, gaining more than 2,000 Instagram followers in six months.

When customers walk up, they get a sensory overload not only from the signs, flags, and music, but also the owners themselves. Moseley stands at 6-foot-4-inches, dresses in all black, and has several face tattoos. He knows customers aren’t expecting to see a guy like him behind the counter inside this contemporary building with muted wood floors, big glass windows, and minimalist architecture. So he leans into it.

“We don't have a lot of awkward conversations with customers, because we make it really awkward from the jump,” Moseley said. 

It seems abrasive, but that’s who they are—veteran line cooks, not enterprising chefs. They developed the menu between shots of Fernet and sips of Busch Light. They make fart jokes and named their website 

But they’re serious about treating people right. Unlike most restaurants, they pay their employees $15 per hour. They also want to get involved in social causes. At their former jobs they donated meals to the homeless and families in need. During Pride month, they donated 10% of their profits every Tuesday to OutNebraska, an advocacy and educational organization for LGBTQ+ issues. And while they joke with customers, they have a reverence for the experience they’re providing.

While fried chicken has become a trend in fast food, the way Dirty Birds makes it channels nostalgia. Whether you eat it at a table, out of a bucket, or off a Dixie plate, fried chicken has long been a way for families to feed a crowd and celebrate good times. 

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

Even the potato salad is Moseley’s mom’s recipe. The pickles are a tribute to their years working at Kitchen Table. Everything has meaning.

“You're paying for our experience,” Moseley said. “You're paying for the blood, sweat, and tears we put into making our fried chicken.”

People have flown their chicken across the country. One visitor said he couldn’t understand why any tourist would get a steak in Omaha when Dirty Birds exists. West watched one man start to tear up as he ate his chicken sandwich on FaceTime with a friend.

“That meant everything,” West said.

Maybe that deceptively complex connection people have with fried chicken is to thank for their early success. Maybe it’s their gregarious counter service that keeps people coming back. Whatever it is, it’s working and it’s given West, Whalen, and Moseley license to think about the future. Eventually they want to open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant. But like everything else that’s happened, they’re going to keep working, being themselves, and wait for the right opportunity.

“We plan on having another big-ass location, one for us built by us…something we can create from the ground up,” Moseley said. “It's definitely a goal. We’re not gonna hide that. Do we have a timeline? You know, not so much. Do we foresee things happening fast? Like every other time we've done anything else? Yeah.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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