How to Grow a Fried Chicken Business During a Pandemic
Honey’s Kettle opened two delivery-only locations in Los Angeles this year and eyes further expansion throughout the city.
Vincent Williams knows what it takes to succeed in the restaurant business. After working at the popular Southern California franchise Golden Bird, he went on to become franchisee of a struggling Compton store in the late ‘90s. When Golden Bird changed hands, he parlayed what he learned there into opening the first Honey’s Kettle location in Compton.
Six years later, in 2005, he opened a second Honey’s Kettle, in Culver City, and closed the Compton store. It was here that he and his wife, Arlene, taught their children, Marques, Trenton, and Shayla, the spirit of entrepreneurship. “We did every job, from cleaning up and taking orders to seasoning chicken, working the register, and managing the restaurant,” says Trenton, 30, who returned home from Portland, Oregon, where he worked as a footwear designer for Adidas, to help run the marketing and creative side of the business.
The secret to Honey’s Kettle’s success is its modern take on a colonial-era cooking method that uses deep kettle drums. The intense fire tenderizes the marinated chicken and seals in its natural juices, giving it a vibrant golden color, a flavorful interior, and crispy, crackly skin. Each bite pairs well with their hand-rolled, honey-drizzled buttermilk biscuits, kettle-cooked French fries, and sweet pickles. There’s also kettle-cooked catfish, chicken burgers, chicken salads, an array of sides, and Honey’s Kettle’s signature Ice Shaker lemonade. At the beginning of 2020, they added breakfast to the menu, serving chicken sausage biscuit bakes, chicken breakfast sandwiches, hotcakes, and wings. There’s also an online store that sells their Biscuit, Pancake & Waffle Mix and their Secret Sauce for anyone hankering for Honey’s Kettle at home.
The restaurant had been doing well with lines out the door until COVID-19 shut down all indoor dining in the city. “We lost 60% of our business overnight,” says Terence. As other establishments shuttered, closing was never an option for the family, who had faced hardships in the past when a fire once forced them to close for an extended time. A pandemic, however, was different—and daunting. “The delivery service was doing well, and we were exploring the idea of opening a cloud kitchen,” says Marques, 35, who works in commercial real estate and manages Honey’s Kettle’s growth and operations business. “We had to pause for a bit at the beginning of COVID, but realized the world is changing and we could perform well in the cloud kitchen space, so we made the decision to do it.”
In July, the family opened Honey’s Drop Kitchen, a delivery-only business in Downtown Los Angeles. Two months later, a second Honey’s Drop location opened in Hollywood. “Business has been good,” says Shayla, who is in charge of digital marketing and public relations. “Of course, with every new venture, there are challenges. We never expected it to be easy, and we continue to work through the learnings and adjust accordingly.” Marques says that “to turn on all of the [delivery] platforms and get customer support the same day was encouraging. Since then, we have seen steady growth, a couple of surges, and had some outstanding sales months.”
If launching a new business during a pandemic wasn’t stressful enough, the family was saddened by the police killing of George Floyd and the civil unrest and looting that followed. The business was spared and encouraged by a local movement that brought new customers through the doors. “The ‘Support Black-Owned Restaurants’ movement gave us exposure to a wider audience, and it helped us to get a different level of attention,” says Marques. “Our core customers are familiar with our story, but there were a lot of people who were under the impression that Honey’s Kettle is a national brand. The support helped to bring the small-town elements of our story to life, and it was incredibly helpful in getting us through this period.”
The heart and soul of the business is Vincent, who still runs the day-to-day operation and is just as passionate about it, even as the family steers the businesses into the future. “In some ways, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise because there was no way around it: Dad needed our help,” says Trenton. “It has helped him trust us more.” Mom Arlene handles the growing delivery business. They now have nearly 50 employees, and plan to open more cloud kitchens and a second brick-and-mortar store by 2022. They’re also training the next generation with two of Marques’s children, Leo, 9, and Kendell, 6, who are already working in the Culver City store.
“We're a very close family, and it's been refreshing to bring our unique talents and skills to the table to make something great and contribute to the family legacy,” says Shayla. “Within our immediate family, we have a digital marketing specialist, commercial real estate guru, finance expert, advertiser, and a creative. We have it all and we do it all.”