Willie Mae’s Scotch House, the iconic family-owned New Orleans restaurant that dates back to 1957, makes what many consider the country’s best fried chicken, and this week, it started serving its first fried chicken sandwich.
The sandwich, known as “the Willie Mae,” is a collaboration with Los Angeles restaurant HiHo Cheeseburger, debuting last Saturday at HiHo’s Mid-Wilshire outpost and then on Monday in New Orleans at Willie Mae’s Scotch House and Willie Mae’s at the Market. The Willie Mae will soon also be at HiHo’s Santa Monica location, and is available until the end of November—potentially longer.
It’s already a huge success. In Los Angeles, the sandwich is drawing socially distanced lines that extend well down the block.
The chicken breast on the sandwich is fried in the same batter and seasoning that Willie Mae’s uses for its legendary chicken, and it’s a remarkable feat of engineering and balance that took years of R&D. One goal was to preserve the tremendous crunch of Willie Mae’s fried chicken while making sure the meat remains juicy. After numerous test runs of antibiotic-free chicken, including dark meat and white meat from many suppliers, a team including Willie Mae’s owner Kerry Seaton-Stewart and HiHo co-founder Jerry Greenberg succeeded.
The sandwich, served with housemade HiHo pickles on a brioche bun, features a deconstructed slaw that adds nice acidity while preserving the crunch of the batter. There’s also a hit of sweetness from organic honey. And while the chicken has a little kick from cayenne pepper, this is not a spicy sandwich.
“We were not trying to get in the lane of a hot chicken sandwich,” Seaton-Stewart said.
Seaton-Stewart, the great-granddaughter of Willie Mae’s founder Willie Mae Seaton, was in L.A. last weekend and saw the massive line outside HiHo. The restaurant sold out of the sandwich by the mid-afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday. The turnout didn’t surprise Seaton-Stewart because she’s had people asking her to bring Willie Mae’s west for years.
“They’ve been begging us to come to California, to come to L.A., so this is how we brought Willie Mae’s to California in the form of the chicken sandwich,” she said. “I was absolutely excited. Seeing the crowd really made me feel good.”
Then on Monday, Seaton-Stewart felt an energy at Willie Mae’s Scotch House that she hadn’t experienced in many months. Even with a 50-percent-capacity restriction, the excitement surrounding the sandwich made the Scotch House seem like a restaurant in full.
“It was our first busy day since the pandemic,” Seaton-Stewart said and laughed. “We were non-stop busy from open to close. People were waiting for us to open.”
The phone kept ringing. Postmates orders kept coming in. Then on Tuesday, things got even busier.
Long before “pivoting” became a necessity for the entire restaurant industry, Seaton-Stewart had adapted her life and her restaurant to deal with unforeseen circumstances. She worked at Willie Mae’s Scotch House as a teenager and then returned to help out after college when her grandparents got ill.
In 2005, Willie Mae’s Scotch House won a James Beard Award for being one of “America’s Classics.” Business picked up, but then Hurricane Katrina hit later that year. Seaton-Stewart and her family evacuated. Katrina destroyed the Scotch House. And Willie Mae Seaton, who died in 2005 at the age of 99, would not be there for any revival.
With help from the Southern Foodways Alliance and other organizations, Seaton-Stewart and her family rebuilt the restaurant and reopened it in 2007. She remembers a call from the Food Network that was a moment of clarity. They told her that they were ready to declare Willie Mae’s fried chicken the best in the country. But if Willie Mae’s didn’t reopen, that title would be given to someone else.
Seaton-Stewart, who has a political science degree and studied urban planning in graduate school, abandoned her plan to become a lawyer and took over the restaurant.
“I never looked back,” she said. “I was like a racehorse. For me, it was just keeping the legacy going, trying to make my grandparents proud. I understood that the restaurant had been on that corner, in that neighborhood, since the ’50s. I think about that every day. My staff are really tired of hearing it. But that’s what motivates me.”
Seaton-Stewart admits that she used to be headstrong about what Willie Mae’s Scotch House should be. She grew up thinking that table service and the warm New Orleans hospitality inside the dining room were essential.
“I’ve definitely learned that nothing is certain and we just had to adapt,” she said. “Now I’m like, ‘Don’t be so stubborn.’ If people love the food, they should be able to eat the food whether they’re dine-in, takeout, or an app order.”
Seaton-Stewart was an early adopter of delivery apps in New Orleans. She says she’ll continue to evolve her business and take advantage of new technology. This is something she’s discussed with her longtime friend Greenberg, who first ate at Willie Mae’s a decade ago after a pal insisted he get on a plane and try the best fried chicken in the world.
“I’m trash-talking the whole way to New Orleans,” Greenberg said. “Come on. It might be good, but it’s not that good.”
Greenberg arrived at the restaurant, took one bite, and was flabbergasted. He ate at Willie Mae’s twice during that trip and has returned to New Orleans often for the chicken.
A bond formed between Greenberg and Seaton-Stewart. Their families have spent holidays together and cooked together often. Seaton-Stewart ate at Sugarfish, another of Greenberg’s restaurants, and was impressed. Greenberg and Seaton-Stewart didn’t come into this with any expectation of going into business together. But after making many chicken sandwiches, they’re happy that their goals are aligned.
“We’re going to have to grow,” Seaton-Stewart said of Willie Mae’s. “If I can just grow with HiHo, I am completely satisfied by that.”
“I’m just grateful for anybody that comes,” she continued. “Every guest, every order big or small, I love it all. As long as they want some Willie Mae’s and they miss us and are thinking about us, I’m happy. I feel like we have our brand and when things get back to normal, we’ll be OK. We’re OK now. We’ll be OK then.”