If you're coming off the Ravenel Bridge at the East Bay Street exit, take a look at the stoplight that meets you at the foot of the bridge. It used to be the site of the Portside Deli, a place that most people probably don't remember. But what came to occupy the building after that eatery, the Kickin' Chicken, has made a much more lasting impression on the Holy City.
Owners Bobby Perry and Chip Roberts (who were eventually joined by David Miller) modeled their Morrison Drive restaurant after a wing place in Columbia, knowing that Charleston had a gap in the food delivery niche at the time. The area that is now known as NoMo was a good spot for getting where the guys needed to get quickly — making deliveries to the College of Charleston or the hospital and medical school, which was much easier to do back then — and it was perfect because they could afford it. But basically, the building was a trailer on stilts. Any time a truck went by, the structure would sway and beverages would shimmy on customers' tables. At one time, bums lived underneath it.
Needless to say, the Kickin' Chicken guys don't miss their first location. Not long after opening, they moved to King Street, across the street from where they're sitting at a high-top table today.
"We had no idea what we were doing," Roberts says of those early years. "We had no business acumen whatsoever. We just knew about making good food and what we liked to eat, and we tried to serve what we liked to eat."
There were some rough times in those early years. Perry and Roberts say they fought like a married couple, since they were spending basically very waking minute together. The guys were putting in about 80 hours a week at that first restaurant and eating Kickin' Chicken sandwiches constantly. Plus they knew nothing about inventory.
Fortunately, the potential was there. A few years after the King Street move, they opened a second location on James Island. Miller came into that restaurant for lunch one day, and he says he noticed the possibilities immediately. "I saw the menu, I saw the way things were, and at that point I didn't know that they didn't know what they were doing," Miller laughs, and Perry and Roberts do too. All three had, and still have, the same values: Start with the customers. Spread it to the employees. And with Miller, Kickin' Chicken started focusing more on the community, to the point where they are now regularly involved with charitable endeavors.
Charleston and its dining scene are different now than they were 15 years ago. The three men have watched the college grow tremendously and the King Street after-dark scene move north, and in the meantime they grew the Kickin' Chicken to a chain of seven. The owners don't know the names of every employee at each restaurant, but they do know most of the bartenders and anyone else who's been around for a long time, and there are many. The operating manager out in Summerville has been with the company for 13 years; he started out as a cook. And at the King Street location, there's Shannon the bartender, who the guys make fun of for her new haircut. She's been there more than six years. "We feel obligated to provide careers for these people," Roberts says. "They've come up with us, and we're doing our best to provide them with long-term careers."
The Kickin' Chicken business model has changed over the years, especially as they've moved out into the suburbs, from something that was alcohol-oriented to a more family-friendly environment. "I think what we've learned mostly is we really value the customer," Perry says. "We're not here for the short-time dollar. We really want to take care of the customers because they take care of us. We want to take care of our employees because they take care of us."
And while many King Street eateries have come and gone, the Chicken stands tall.