DALLAS -- Before Williams Chicken took wing and migrated to three dozen locations, it had humble beginnings: Just a single fried chicken joint in Southern Dallas.
There… speaking of humble -- you can still find the founder mopping the floors.
“This was one of my first jobs -- mopping floors," says Hiawatha Williams.
From floors all the way to the corporate ceiling, Williams spent 18 years rising through the ranks at Church’s Chicken but, “They had some philosophies I disagreed on -- primarily pay," he said.
He left, and three decades ago started Williams Chicken, where new workers come in at $7.50 to $8 an hour and work part-time. That way at least some full-timers can earn a living wage.
“I like to have four to six people in a store that can make a living doing this," he says.
Williams has made a good living in his nearly 50 combined years in the chicken business.
“Only job I’ve had," he says.
He’s old enough now to retire and play golf with longtime friend and partner James May, except May says, “He’s probably back there right now cooking."
And Williams was cooking as we talked to May at a table out front.
“He’d rather cook chicken than play golf," May says incredulously.
Williams jokes that it should be illegal for home cooks to do this themselves, rather than come to him. He regularly cooks on the overnight shift, breading birds for the deep fryer and getting lost in deep thoughts.
“I can think about my father and how proud he was of me and how proud I am of this country. This couldn’t happen anywhere else," he says.
The "this" he refers to is ownership. Back we he set out on his own, Williams says being a black businessowner in Dallas was rare. That didn’t stop him or the people outside his race who helped him.
“Most of the people who helped me get here look just like you. They didn’t look like me," he says.
But he says some of the people who do look like him have been his motivation to keep trying for success, which he measures a little differently.
“I haven’t succeeded as long as there are young men who work with me don’t understand the value of life."
It’s not just about his employees. In those fleeting minutes when meals are crisping in the oil, some customers get a side from Williams that’s not on the menu. For one thing, he strictly enforces the "pull up your pants rule" that is posted on the glass as you enter the restaurant.
Williams can’t understand why some young men come in with their pants sagging down.
“What is the thinking that you are going to show me your behind? I would rather you take your pants off and walk around in your shorts. It gets too painful for me to even talk about it. It has never been about chicken. It was about having a job so I can talk to people -- especially African American young men, because that was on my heart," he says.
Williams has recently been recognized with a Minority Business Leader Award from the Dallas Business Journal. In April he will mark 30 years since he started the original Williams Chicken location on Sunnyvale in Southern Dallas.
Williams believes he still has a lot of chicken -- and a lot of differences -- to make. So he’s not planning to hang up his apron and hit the links in this lifetime.
He half-jokes, “They have golf courses in Heaven."