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At LA’s Most Popular Restaurant, Howlin’ Ray’s, the Lines Never Stop. That’s a Problem.

What can one of the city’s busiest restaurants do to sustain its own future?

A spread out collection of hot chicken, fries, and sauces from Howlin’ Ray’s.
Howlin’ Ray’s
Jakob Layman
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

For the first time in a long time, Amanda Zone doesn’t know what to do. The vibrant co-owner of Chinatown hot chicken sensation, and arguably LA’s most popular restaurant, Howlin’ Ray’s is stuck between a few different bad ideas — and one unthinkable one.

Unlike many restaurants that have transitioned to a delivery or takeout model in the days since Los Angeles County banned dining in, Howlin’ Ray’s has a few distinct hurdles to overcome before starting up service again. A month ago, those issues — a long, close-knit, snaking line of daily customers that often stretched for hours; an immensely popular brand with tens of thousands of loyal followers online; a robust business capable of employing dozens of people churning out thousands of birds a day — were the envy of many restaurant operators in Los Angeles and beyond. Now they may be the very things keeping the Zones from opening up during the time of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Simply put: at Howlin’ Ray’s, the line is the restaurant.

“I was listening to what some people on Instagram and Twitter were saying,” Zone says of the days before the takeout and delivery-only notice came through. “Right away some of our customers were really upset that we were staying open.” Howlin’ Ray’s Far East Plaza space only measures a few hundred square feet, and most of that is the open kitchen; there essentially was no dining room size reduction possible. “Even if people get takeout, they were all still waiting around to pick up their orders. It was creating the same effect, from the point of view of what is considered safe right now.”

Outside, everyone eager for hot chicken was still hovering around near the front door, touching things, talking, and possibly spreading COVID-19 without even knowing. So Amanda Zone called her partner and chef Johnny Ray Zone, who was in Nashville helping Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish rebuild following a devastating series of tornadoes there, and told him that they were going to shut the restaurant down for the entire week of March 16, at the minimum. The restaurant has been closed this week with no specific timeline on when it will reopen.

“I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it,” Zone says of not only the COVID-19 spread, but her restaurant’s response to it. “Our first thought was to stay open. Maybe we can completely eliminate our takeout service and open up our preorder system, run them every 15 minutes throughout the day.” That idea has one big problem, though: volume. A fried chicken restaurant with just a few stools and no alcohol relies on lots of orders to stay afloat, and staggering customers only four an hour is not realistic.

What about a “vault drop,” which Howlin’ Ray’s has done in the past for special collaborations and new merch events? Groups of fans could grab a time slot and preorder, then show up and grab their food all at once and go — all while social distancing, of course. The problem there is volume of a different sort, as rabid fans routinely clog up the ordering systems just trying to get in line, to say nothing of attempting to manage the logistics of everyone showing up in a series of crowds.

As for delivery, good luck. The last time Howlin’ Ray’s tried that, they essentially broke Postmates. At the time, Johnny Ray Zone told Eater that the restaurant was getting 500 orders a minute. Talk about volume.

Crowds in front of Howlin’ Ray’s hot chicken in Chinatown, Los Angeles.
Crowds mill about in front of Howlin’ Ray’s
Farley Elliott

“My biggest concern right now is the financial stability of the staff,” Zone says. “How do we sustain our crew? I’m trying to stay ahead of that.”

For now, the Zones hope to be able to work with Postmates again, even on a slightly more limited scale, to deliver hot chicken across the city. Amanda says that she has been “talking to some of the higher-ups there” to make sure her fears about recurring app crashes are heard. “It’s really hard to explain to people who just say ‘Well, why don’t you do delivery?’ I don’t want to do more harm than good, especially for our fans who are already in a stressful situation.”

So far Zone doesn’t have many firm answers, despite being asked about how the restaurant is dealing with the situation constantly on social media. Howlin’ Rays’ long-awaited second location, in Pasadena, is delayed indefinitely. Hopefully, with a little luck and good technology on their side, the hot chicken restaurant will be up and running on one or more delivery apps within a week, but it all takes time. “We need answers in the short term, and we need to be able to transfer this over into the big picture,” she says, adding that the coronavirus outbreak and the new demands of restaurants everywhere have made her rethink they way they do business every level. “We will end up changing our entire business model because of this.”

The one thing Zone does know: Howlin’ Ray’s will cook again, and soon. Between their crew of energetic employees and their rowdy band of eager fans, Zone says that not serving hot chicken in one form or another is out of the question. As Johnny Ray Zone said on Instagram two days ago: “There is one thing I was put on this Earth to do, and that is cook.”

Howlin' Ray's

727 North Broadway, , CA 90012 (213) 935-8399 Visit Website