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    This LA Fast Casual is Setting the Hot Chicken Scene on Fire

  • For a single-unit brand, Howlin’ Ray’s has drummed up quite a following.

    Howlin’ Ray’s Hot Chicken
    Howlin’ Ray’s founder, Johnny Zone.

    Small but mighty could be the best way to describe Howlin’ Ray’s. Nestled in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, the Nashville hot chicken restaurant serves around 1,200 people a day, six days a week, and counts 129,000 Instagram followers as of press time. Not too shabby for a diminutive, 3-year-old restaurant that’s more than 2,000 miles away from the city where its specialty dish is best known. QSR spoke with Johnny Zone, chef and cofounder, about how he turned his love of a local Southern delicacy into a West Coast must-have.

    The ‘Oh sh**’ moment

    The first time I had hot chicken, I was at Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville. I totally fell in love. I decided to go to all the hot chicken places in Nashville. I flew back to meet every single owner and talk to them about the history of it to understand the culture of hot chicken—who’s eating it, why they’re eating it, why they love it—and to really do my due diligence in that sense, to pay homage. If you don’t understand a dish’s origins, conceptually as a chef, it’s hard to replicate.

    The “oh sh**” moment came in this little shack. There were these wasps flying around and “Smokestack Lightnin’” [by musician Howlin’ Wolf] was playing from these little speakers. I had fried okra and this breast quarter that was really hot. The music and the environment just really inspired me.

    Since that moment, it has been a quest to not only introduce L.A. to something they’ve never had before, but also to uphold the standards of the culture behind it. My wife, Amanda, and I felt like it was something the country would totally fall in love with. I went out to Nashville when my father passed away. His name was Ray Zone, so, as a tribute to him, we came up with the name.

    Nashville in Chinatown

    We chose a food truck first; that was all we could afford. For the Chinatown location, we started out with 500 square feet, and I would say one-third of it was counter seating, and right behind the counter seating was where the chefs prepared the food. Think of it like a sushi bar, but instead of rice warmers, knives, and a fish tray, there are fryers and fried chicken, buns being toasted, slaw, and pickles. It’s all right there in front of you.

    At the time, there really weren’t that many open-counter fried-chicken concepts. I think most people thought it wasn’t necessarily the prettiest thing. No one wants to see raw chicken. Historically, a lot of fried chicken restaurants don’t have the back exposed because a lot of these recipes are secretive. But for me, a big part of being a chef was that hospitality and banter as well, especially in the South; there’s a lot more banter to your everyday interactions, whether you’re getting gas or buying a pie. I wanted to bring that to Los Angeles. So, you have chefs preparing your food, and they’re passing it to you, making funny faces, and cracking jokes. Simultaneously, Tupac and Biggie, classic hip-hop icons, are playing in the background with the walls kind of shaking from our subwoofer. It really is this experience.

    Social media maven

    Amanda has been interested in social media and photography and the many different things that tie into that—culture and style—for a while.

    She’s big on engagement in terms of responding to the customers asking, “What’s the wait time?” or, “Are you going to be closed this day?” A lot of businesses don’t really do that, whether they have 1,000 followers or 10,000 followers. That engagement is very important in that it keeps the business alive, but also shows respect to people who are asking.

    Then she makes the investment in the right photographer or the right style to fit the brand. All these different elements, whether it’s music, photo, or language, show people who we are.

    And show customer appreciation, too. We have regulars, and she’ll send them GIFs—not even maybe pertaining to the restaurant, because maybe she knows this guy really likes the Atlanta Braves.

    Second location hump

    We have been expanding; we’ve taken over the space next door and tripled the space for storage. When we started, we were serving 175 people in a day, now we’re at 1,200 people. We’re continuing to evolve the systems within the restaurant, developing the staff, and making the brand stronger.

    We’re working on locking in the funding and location for a second location. It’s hard to be consistent throughout when you have something as unique as our Chinatown restaurant.

    Once we get to a second store, we’re going to let the restaurant take a course of its own, let the business dictate where it wants to go versus trying to open 300 units. If your expansion, growth model, and goals don’t fall in line with that answer, then chances are you’re losing a little bit of the identity of the business.