After a legal battle with his former company, Ezell Stephens, co-founder of Ezell’s Famous Fried Chicken, is starting over with a new business venture in Renton.
Stephens held the soft-opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony for Heaven Sent Fried Chicken Nov. 10 at its location downtown on Third Street.
It is the first original establishment to open under the Heaven Sent name. Stephens’ other locations in Everett and Lake City were previously Ezell’s Famous Fried Chicken locations.
Stephens arrived at a settlement with his former company this year in which he had to change the name of the restaurants he opened in Everett and Lake City, but both he and Ezell’s Famous Fried Chicken could use the same recipe.
Stephens said he’s thrilled with the outcome of the settlement.
“This is the first (restaurant) to come under the name with no change; it’s born as Heaven Sent,” he said. “So that makes it real special.”
Stephens calls Heaven Sent a new beginning, saying that the Ezell’s journey is a done deal.
Today, at age 58, Stephens said he is finally doing what he was born to do.
“It’s really good to be doing what I’m doing and reaping from my work,” he said. “I never experienced this before since I’ve been in business.”
Stephens founded the Ezell’s chain in 1984 with his then-wife Faye Rudd, her brother, Lewis Rudd, and Stephens’ brother Sam.
When asked if the Heaven Sent recipe differs or is an improvement on the Ezell’s recipe, Stephens had this to say:
“Well, I’m Ezell, so why would I mess with perfection? Why would I mess with greatness? Why would I tamper with it?”
It is that family recipe, the basis for his original company, that caught the interest of Oprah Winfrey, who proclaimed the chicken one of her favorites. This catapulted Ezell’s to fame in the region.
But, does Heaven Sent Fried Chicken stand up?
“Oh yeah, it’s real good,” said Ronnie Beltran, commenting on how the pieces are big and juicy just like he remembered them.
Beltran has been eating Stephens’ chicken for 20 years, he said.
“The first time I met him was at the U-District when he had one of his restaurants there,” Beltran said. “Ate there almost every day, so I wanted to come by and just say hi to him.”
Many people turned out to wish Stephens well at the ribbon-cutting. Some were audibly eager to try the chicken, rolls and peach cobbler he served up.
The menu for the small, take-and-go restaurant features the famous chicken in spicy and original, bread pudding, sweet potato pie, mash potatoes and gravy and coleslaw as the highlights.
Stephens has about 17 people on staff now, but says he knows not everyone is heaven sent. So, he expects that some of his staff aren’t in it for the long haul.
“You get more than a job when you work at Heaven Sent,” Stephens said. “It’s about changing lives, becoming a better person. Not just about making chicken and selling chicken.”
Stephens says he’s a very positive person; he thinks that life is simple, but people complicate it by not being fair or honest.
“They want things out of life without putting in time for it,” Stephens said. “And if you’re around me, I can tell you my everyday life is to teach by example.”
He doesn’t try and tell his employees first how to change their lives, he shows them, he said.
Stephens counts each one of his employees as special people and said that his business is heaven sent.
His former business partners are free to go their own way and he his way, he said.
“I’m free to fly, just like the birds,” Stephens said.
Heaven Sent Fried Chicken
509 S. Third St. in Renton
Hours: 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., Monday – Saturday, 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday