If there is a heaven just for fried chicken lovers, I'm pretty sure the pearly gates are topped with a gleaming golden slogan that reads: "If the colonel had our recipe, he'd be a general!"
And ever since that thought crossed my mind, I've tried to be extra good, just in case I'm on to something. The story of Billy Dee's Premium Chicken, the people who run it, and, of course, its splendid motto, is as warm as the steam off their fresh-baked corn muffins.
Bill and Diana Condon (Bill + Diana = Billy Dee's, get it?) are the unlikeliest of people to be running a down-home southern fried chicken joint on Johns Island. Snow birds from the land of the North, the Condons (no relation to the local family) came to Charleston looking to escape the corporate grind and decided to open a practical business.
"I was working as a corporate executive, and it was a rat race," says Bill Condon. "I had the chance to get out and decided to take it. We moved to Kiawah and wanted to find a recession-proof business. My wife was an excellent cook, and we adapted her recipes."
If that was the sum total of what Billy Dee's represents, then it would be a common tale. But the Condons don't operate the way other businesses around town so often do. They pay their people more than minimum wage, and many of the employees have been with the place since it opened 18 years ago.
This kind of employee-centric approach has served them well over the years. Their unforgettable slogan was uttered by an employee in response to the opening of a new KFC down the street. Today, they're the only fried chicken joint on the block.
Of course, no matter your workplace ethics, without good food, you won't last long, and Billy Dee's certainly qualifies in this respect. They serve an incredible version of classic southern fried chicken, comparable to the crispy birds that you can get at the Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly, and more authentic than the smattering of places trying to pawn themselves off as "southern" or "Lowcountry" to the wagonloads of tourists.
Mr. Condon attributes this to the quality of the birds and their freshness. "We only use a white shell bird, which is more expensive. I searched all over for someone who would deliver a one-day kill date, and there's only one guy in the state that would do it for me." Which means that juicy bird with the crackling crust that you are chowing on in the melamine booth was barnyard happy on a local farm just two days before. Since then, she's been enjoying a mellow bath of buttermilk and "secret spices."
All of this adds up to a fine eating experience, if a difficult one to maintain. Billy Dee's deep-fries its chicken in pure peanut oil, which Condon says tripled in price last year. Such prices can prove hard to absorb, but they're not about to skimp. They stopped frying chicken livers a while back, because they couldn't hold them long without them deteriorating, and people didn't want to wait. But the corn muffins are divine, the fried okra is sublime, and the baby-back ribs, which undergo a two-day cooking process, must be eaten to be believed.
When the day is done, the diners depart, and the longtime employees head home, but not before making one final stop. Billy Dee's donates its leftover food to local missions every day to help feed the hungry and the homeless.
Mr. Condon credits the success of the restaurant to their good karma. They treat employees and customers right, and they don't cut corners for a cheap buck — never have. You can taste it in the chicken and see it in the faces of the regulars inside the ordinary dining room tucked next door to a Subway on Main Road (which Mr. Condon also owns).
In the lean times ahead, one gets the feeling that Billy Dee's won't be getting cut from the tightening budgets on Johns Island.