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Originally published August 5, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified August 6, 2012 at 6:46 AM

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A fast-food joint that's heaven-sent

The owner of a fried-chicken business talks about collaboration, ambition and scratching up the determination to keep cooking after being pushed out of his own company.

Seattle Times business reporter

Ezell Stephens

Owner of four Heaven Sent fried-chicken restaurants

Age: 59

Employees: 30

Hobbies: Physical fitness: "I am running a marathon in Portland in August."

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Ezell Stephens hopped up to help cash out customers as more people walked into the newest location of his Heaven Sent Fried Chicken chain on Rainier Avenue South. Then he rushed to the kitchen to fry chicken strips that must be cooked on the spot.

"It's like a new baby — you have to spend as much time as you can with the newest born," he said.

Stephens has been doing this since opening the first Ezell's Fried Chicken in the Central Area in 1984. That chain, which he ran with his childhood friend and his brother-in-law at the time, Lewis Rudd, became semifamous in 1990 when Oprah Winfrey told the nation about the fried chicken for which she broke her diet. She even had Stephens and Rudd fly to Chicago to cook their chicken for her birthday party.

The fame got them out of debt, but financial problems returned and Stephens wound up with a divorce, a breakup with his business partner and lawsuits over the restaurants.

After a year of legal battles, Stephens lost the rights to the Ezell's name in a 2011 settlement. But both he and Rudd got to keep using the recipe, and Ezell's Fried Chicken agreed to pay him an undisclosed amount.

Stephens smiled broadly when asked about restarting without rights to his own name.

"It wasn't about starting over," he said. "I just took off from where I was with Ezell. Once I was sued and fired from the company, it was exactly what I needed."

No one knew him 28 years ago when he had to persuade people to trust him, he said. "Who do I have to convince now that I know what I am doing?" he asked. "No one."

There's still a trace of pain about the breakup with his former partners, though.

"I had a funeral. Everybody is dead to me ... I'll see them again, I don't see them again — it doesn't matter."

Stephens said he can't change the past, so he concentrates on the future. He even did this during the lawsuit, embarking on a new restaurant company while fighting over the old one.

He found an available building in Everett and considered the opportunity heaven-sent, which gave birth to the new chain's name. The Everett outlet, his second Heaven Sent location after the one in Lake City, became his flagship — it's the nicest and has sales that reach $10,000 a month, Stephens said. With stores in Renton and most recently on Rainier Avenue South, he now has four outlets.

He shares the location on Rainier Avenue with Willie Turner, proprietor of Willie's Taste of Soul, who cooks both his barbecue and Stephens' chicken, and keeps separate registers for each business.

There is a huge Heaven Sent sign dominated by the restaurant's name and Stephens' photo on the outside of the building. The walls inside are painted red and yellow. Eleven tables fill the restaurant, and large chicken breasts and thighs keep warm in the display behind the cash registers.

The shared arrangement is "bringing in more customers, which is building up the clientele," said Turner, who struggled selling only barbecue before.

It's collaborative deals like this one that helped Stephens pick himself up. For instance, he pays for equipment in installments instead of paying for everything up front, he said.

"We have faith in him; you know that he is the original founder of the fried-chicken business, and I am sure any business he continues he will do well," said King Lee, president of Monarch Trading, which provides equipment both to Heaven Sent and the rival Ezell's.

Stephens' longstanding ties to the community and his customers were evident on a recent day at the Rainier Avenue store.

Twinnet Bowens, who stopped by to pick up some chicken, said Stephens helped her out in 1994 when she was living on her own at age 17 and struggling. Now, she was asking Stephens for a job for her 17-year-old son — he told her to come by again soon to see if he had any openings.

Stephens and Rudd got their start in business as youngsters, picking vegetables and going door to door to sell them back in Marshall, Texas.

"This is how we were raised, as entrepreneurs. As soon as you got big enough to work, you were working," Stephens said. They both dropped out of high school and worked at the same fried-chicken restaurant in Marshall. Stephens joined the Coast Guard, and Rudd joined the Army. And when the Coast Guard led Stephens to Seattle, Rudd and family members followed.

Stephens uses his own story to inspire others and has spoken to Monroe Correctional Complex inmates a few times.

Stephens recalls one inmate complaining he would never be able to get a job because of his prison record. Stephens said he told the man that people had said he could never own a fried-chicken restaurant, either. "Your first mistake is you believe a lie," Stephens said he told the inmate. "Because whoever told you that you couldn't get a job once you go to prison lied and you believed it."

It's these convictions that keep Stephens going. And his ambitions are undiminished.

He has bought property back in Marshall for a Heaven Sent restaurant. Also, he and Rashid Mohamed, a local man from Somalia, said they are making plans to open Heaven Sent restaurants in conjunction with Mohamed's coffee shops in Somalia, Tanzania and Dubai.

"I am the best fried-chicken maker in the world. Can't nobody beat me," said Stephens.

Johanna Somers: 206-464-3714 or jsomers@seattletimes.com

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