Ezell StephensAfter moving with the U.S. Coast Guard to Seattle 40 years ago, Ezell Stephens dreamed of opening his own fried chicken restaurant in the city. Realizing he would need to add clerical expertise to the cooking skills he had learned at a Marshall, Texas, fried chicken restaurant, he set about doing so in several ways, sometimes at the same time.
He learned management skills through working for Kentucky Fried Chicken, studied how to run a business at Seattle Community College, and mastered courses in commercial baking. All that time he was making payments on a building he had bought in downtown Seattle opposite Garfield High School that would be his first restaurant. But, although he now believed he had the skills, he had to wait another two years for a $120,000 loan from the Small Business Administration before realizing his dream. The preparation had taken 11 years.
It Was 'Heaven Sent'
"All that preparation was worthwhile," he says of the time he opened the doors of Ezell's Fried Chicken for the first time in 1984. "It took off. People were pouring into the restaurant like water out of a bucket. Some were pulling up in Ferrari's and Mercedes. I looked at what was happening and I said, "This is heaven sent."
The seeds were sown for the name of today's restaurant chain opened 27 years later. Following the pattern of that first outlet, all Ezell's ventures have been successful from Day One.
Oprah: An Endorsement Like No Other
When Oprah visited Seattle to attend a fundraising event for the Boys and Girls Clubs, she asked the staffer for a local television station where she could obtain good fried chicken. The response was immediate. "Ezell makes the best fried chicken in town." After ordering it the first night, Oprah followed it with another order the next night.
On her return to Chicago, Oprah, wanting to order her favorite food for her 40th birthday, recalled Ezell's fine food, and asked her assistant to see whether she could order it. "I will make it for her," Ezell promised. He packed his secret ingredients into an overnight bag and flew to Chicago where he delivered the chicken to Oprah and had pictures taken with her. "As word spread, my business took off even more," Ezell recalls.
Man of Many Marathons
Ezell enjoys running almost as much as he enjoys making Oprah's favorite fried chicken. In 1985 Ezell ran his first Seattle Marathon, following it with the Portland Marathon. Soon he was running three marathons a year and today has notched 60 marathons, matching his age. "I have just turned 61 and so I need to get another marathon under my belt before too long," he says.