Remember when Dick’s Drive-In got a nod as the country’s most life-changing burgers? Now another Seattle institution has nabbed that title for fried chicken, with Ezell’s Famous Chicken taking the number one spot in an Esquire magazine poll. Editors wrote that they were “shocked” by the Northwest win on a list that was otherwise loaded with Southern favorites.
Company CEO and co-founder Lewis Rudd told Esquire the secret to the Oprah-blessed place’s success is “fresh ingredients and homemade preparation.”
After 28 years of community support and crunchy drumsticks, the loyalty of their fans made a difference too.
Rudd told me that he first learned about the Ezell’s nomination from a food services rep. “He emailed me a link to it. At that time, we were 5 percent of the vote.” Price’s Chicken Coop in North Carolina was far in the lead with 69 percent.
“We began sending the word out.”
Rudd emailed board members and all his managers and assistant managers. They passed it on and shared it on Facebook.
“We started seeing the needle move.” The Ezell’s vote went up to 12 percent, then 30 percent… and then they were ahead. “It was very exciting… we were getting calls from all over,” Rudd said, including check-ins from his 82-year-old mother back home in Texas. (She’s not online, but one of his brothers kept her posted.)
It’s not the first national nod for Ezell’s. The place is known for winning a thumbs-up from Winfrey, who became a fan after she had an assistant call up and ask to have some delivered when she was in town one day. It was a Saturday, Rudd recalled, and they told the assistant they didn’t deliver on Saturdays. “A voice in the background said, ‘Give me that phone!’
They asked how they knew it was really Oprah Winfrey on the line. She replied “Bring that chicken down, and you’ll see,” Rudd said.
On Sunday, she ordered more.
The Esquire vote came after a big junction point for the business. As we mentioned a few days ago, after a long legal struggle, co-founder Ezell Stephens — the Ezell behind Ezell’s — founded a different chain called Heaven Sent Fried Chicken, which made our “Best Road Food in the West” list.
Both chains have the right to use the original recipe.
“After 50 years of friendship, and more than 25 years of being in business together, (Stephens) decided he wanted to go in a different direction,” Rudd said.
Are they still friends?
“We’re still friends. We’re not speaking friends at this point.”
Hopefully, he said, they’ll get back there. Right now, he’s elated by the Esquire appreciation and happy to still be pursuing “the dream we began” of someday having a national business.
Last year, three new Ezell’s branches opened. Rudd hopes to build another few stores in the next 12 months “and eventually an additional 20 units throughout the Puget Sound region.” They’re registered as an official franchise company with the state, and looking at locations in Mill Creek and Federal Way, among other sites. “We brought on a gentleman that worked with Cinnabon and has a huge amount of restaurant experience to help us with innovation and tweaking the menu and the brand a little bit to give it more of a national appeal,” Rudd said.
They’ll also be an official partner in this year’s Torchlight Parade at Seafair. For all the national aspirations, Seattle is still their town. “We definitely want all our loyal customers and fans to know how much we thank them and appreciate them.”
Photo: Three generations of family members working at Ezell’s Fried Chicken (not everyone could make the photo, there are another 10 or so not pictured.) Keith Williams/ FlyWright productions