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Serving Fried Chicken From Ghost Kitchens

Vincent Williams is the founder of Honey’s Kettle Fried Chicken, which started in Compton and eventually relocated to Culver City. As the pandemic took hold of Los Angeles, Williams spun out the new Honey’s Kettle Drop Kitchen, a pair of ghost kitchens focused on delivery.

I’ve been through so many crises. I started in 1983. I had a franchise that was an impossible situation as my entrée into the business. I was only 27. You think you can conquer the world at that age.

I started with no money, so the first week I was out of money. The second week I was in a worse situation than the first. It was a snowball effect. I was like, “I can’t believe this. Is this thing called business? Does it ever make any sense?” It was tough. From then, I’ve been dog-paddling in the middle of an ocean for maybe 33 years before I got beached on some dry land.

Now I’ve been in business for 37 years. The last 5 years have been sweeter than the prior 32. My whole job at this point is the research and development of creating a great brand in this day and age. If you’re going to be an In-N-Out, then the research and development part, where you’ve got a lot of sunk costs, is what you can expect if you want to be a 100-year company. My journey has been laying the foundation for a 100-year company.

Vincent Williams. Photo: Stan Lee.

The pandemic hit the country so hard that we were frightened out of our wits. We dropped 60 percent overnight. Like many entrepreneurs, I had to declare, “This is war.”

We dropped back into our Compton mode of doing business—meaning that when we were in Compton, we were just barely making a nickel and a dime. We scaled back to the Compton kind of budget. Then we saw it start to gradually pick back up, but we kept our costs real low.

One of the biggest lessons in this pandemic was that you don’t want to be carrying debt. When something like this hits, if you’re debt-free, you can adjust quickly. So we put ourselves on COD. Then we worked out terms on closing accounts with our suppliers. We did everything like it was the one thing we were going to have to go to war with. And I think we’re winning now.

We had always been on the delivery platforms. That was a saving grace. It wasn’t that big of a part of our business before the pandemic. When people started staying home, almost 100 percent of the eat-in and takeout business shifted over to the platforms.

It might have been two or three days before the pandemic hit when I got a phone call with an opportunity to open a ghost kitchen. It sounded interesting to me. Normally I would have rejected that call out of hand. But our main Culver City location essentially had already turned into a cloud kitchen when the pandemic hit, because we were doing all delivery.

Now we have two ghost kitchens open. You have the hub—that’s the Culver City flagship location—and then you have the satellites. The satellites are like little incubators. And it’s easy. Our kind of operation can fit into that kind of space.

We’re trying to figure out the marketing, because that’s a little bit different than opening a restaurant. It takes time to get your name out there. The Culver City location has a big name, and we’ve got a big number we’re doing with the delivery services on one side of the business. We’ve been trying to figure out how to siphon off some of that business into these other areas so that we can cover a broader area from a single base.

You have to spend some money on marketing inside those delivery platforms so that your name will bubble up to the top instead of just being in a list of hundreds of places, and nobody can find you. Our challenge is to figure out how to get ourselves in front of people like we are here in Culver City. We’ve been negotiating with the platforms to lower their fees. We’ve gotten some commitments from Uber Eats to do that. They all try to get that large fee, but we do so much business with them here in Culver City that we’ve been able to get them to scale some of those fees back.

But the other part of the scenario is that we have to charge more for our product in order to compensate for them taking those fees. You’ve got you’ve got to spend money somewhere, so we don’t look at what they’re making—we look at the part that we’re bringing in.

What I always practiced my whole career was that the only asset I really had was my talent with food. No matter how broke I was, I never sacrificed the quality of the product. When a time like this hits, you’re going to have a shrinking of people’s minds as to what choices they’re going to make to buy food.

In a way, we’re in competition with grocery stores, where everybody flocked to when this thing first hit. We saw all the lines. People thought they would never eat out again. But when you get home from the grocery store, and you’ve spent $200, and after two days you say, “What did we get for that? Why am I waiting in a long line and spending $200? I don’t really know how to cook well, and I never practiced cooking. The food wasn’t good, and we didn’t eat the leftovers. We wasted our money.” So then people started to shift toward a place like ours. “Oh, you can get hot food on demand from people who really know how to cook.” You see people carrying grocery-sized bags out of this place constantly.

Now that people can come in and pick up and do takeout, that business has surged back to where it was before. There’s a little bit of chaos when people are standing in a long line, and you’ve also got a stream of delivery drivers coming up to the counter. We redesigned our production table to add more capacity to handle the two operations separately. People are going to be amazed that no matter how long the line is, we can handle it, because we won’t have that competition between taking care of all those orders at the same time.

The first thing in a crisis of this nature is that you’ve got to quickly adapt. You’re now in a new way of doing business. But you have to project to your consumers the confidence that you’re going to get through this thing. We’re going to be here for you.