Why Can’t Hotville Chicken Break Through in Los Angeles? 

On one hot summer day in 2020, Kim Prince, the owner of Los Angeles’s Hotville Chicken, ran orders to rows of cars waiting for takeout in the vast parking lot of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall. Minutes later, she hurried back inside to check the delivery app screens and tap away on her phone with messages to her fans on social media. In the kitchen, her staff of two hovered over piles of Hotville chicken, fresh from the cooker and still forming a craggy exterior as it rested, the skin a reddish-orange from the restaurant’s proprietary spice blend.

“In June of 2020, I saw six-figure gross receipts for the month,” says Prince. She credits a confluence of moments for Hotville’s summer 2020 boom, including, notably, the Buy Black movement that emerged in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing nationwide anti-police protests. Juneteenth, a federal holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, gave diners eager to spend their money on local Black-owned restaurants a date to circle in their calendars; Los Angeles’s penchant for hot chicken gave them a menu item to seek out. “I used to do the numbers for my aunt at Prince’s Chicken in Nashville,” Prince says. “Some days we were doing better than [them], and in our first three months of business.” The city had seemingly started to galvanize for Prince and Hotville, years after she opened her first pop-up and four generations after her family created the culinary phenomenon known simply as hot chicken.

For a while, at least.

A year later, Prince says, Hotville Chicken saw a 35 percent decline in sales. And in the time since, she’s struggled to see anything close to that initial boom. The interior of her restaurant is lined with framed articles extolling her vision and her ties to the Nashville, Tennessee, family who created this style of hot chicken: thick pieces of both dark and white meat, given one final wash of warm oil and flecked with granules of various dried and ground peppers, the chicken then chopped into halves and quarters, nestled onto spongy white bread, and served alongside ridged pickles. Prince herself is there, poring over invoices and wondering whether her restaurant and family legacy can survive in South Los Angeles’s Crenshaw neighborhood, a historically Black community that has been a cultural center for the city for generations, from the jazz era to Nipsey Hussle. Prince often thinks about what Hotville Chicken might have looked like if it hadn’t opened at the outset of the worst public health crisis in recent world history. “We have been gasping for air,” she says.

A white building facade with a sign reading Hotville.

Hotville sits behind the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza Mall, a location that Prince hoped would have a built-in audience.

The quiet days at Hotville don’t mean Los Angeles’s demand for hot chicken has declined overall. If anything, the scene is as robust as ever; just look at semi-recent entrants like Top Chef winner Mei Lin’s Daybird in Silver Lake, which pulled in a horde of diners on opening weekend. Or try the around-the-globe seasoning bonanza at Ontario’s World Fried Chicken, where dozens of hot chicken flavors and styles are available. The Red Chickz, which started in Downtown LA, has begun nationwide franchising after amassing more than 200 million views on TikTok. If anything, it seems that despite Prince’s reputation and her family name, Hotville has become another stop on the crowded hot chicken trail in Southern California. Her personal story and family chicken tradition have flattened into a single social media image, just one frame in a grid of endless hot chicken options in Los Angeles. With so much of the dish around, it might be easy for the average diner to choose convenience over quality and legacy. Why drive to the back of an aging mall in Crenshaw when other popular spots are on Postmates and there’s a Dave’s Hot Chicken on every block? Los Angeles hasn’t moved on from hot chicken, but Prince questions if the city has moved on from her.

Prior to opening Hotville Chicken at the very end of 2019, Kim Prince was one of Los Angeles’s most successful pop-up artists. Her arrival seemed to come out of nowhere. Her pop-up plunked down in Chinatown, just blocks from what was then the most famous name in Los Angeles hot chicken: Howlin’ Ray’s, which has become the standard-bearer for Nashville hot chicken in the city. On its busiest pre-pandemic days, fans would line up for three hours or more just to score some chicken and sides. And while the owners have no connection to Nashville, Tennessee, themselves, they have, Prince believes, tried to navigate the hot chicken space with grace, understanding the dish’s home city and the food’s foundations, which cannot be said for everyone in the space.

Prince’s move to Chinatown did not go unnoticed. Here was Kim Prince, a longtime Angeleno tied by blood to the origin story of Nashville hot chicken, serving the platonic ideal of a dish already captivating the city and the rest of America — and doing it on already-claimed hot chicken territory. Prince’s pop-up was a traditionalist’s operation that eschewed tenders and squiggly lines of comeback sauce for chicken quarters, white bread, and bracing pickles. “We decided to call it Hotville because people in LA don’t know the Prince name,” she told Eater at the time. “But the chicken is exactly the same.”

Hot chicken is her family birthright, a legacy born from her great-great-uncle Thornton and his nearly century-old BBQ Hot Chicken Shack (now called Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack) in Nashville, Tennessee. The oft-told origin story — a spurned, and always unnamed, lover of Thornton’s tried to enact revenge on his alleged cheating by concocting a fried chicken so spicy it would fill him with hot regret — is legendary, as is the dish’s connection to its namesake city. There are now hot chicken restaurants claiming the Southern city’s name everywhere from Australia to Dubai, and in the U.S., it’s been co-opted by countless other restaurateurs and major fast-food franchises. Hot chicken is a global phenomenon, but despite the Prince family being its creators, their name is not known worldwide or even widely in this country.

A Black woman wearing a black kitchen uniform holds a brown paper bag and smiles at the camera with a hand on her hip.

Kim Prince’s great-great uncle is the founder of the famed Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville.

“We’ve got a rich history here,” says Prince. “I mean, here is this Black family that started this whole business.” It made for a strong case, compelling Kim Prince to introduce real hot chicken to Los Angeles. Even before Hotville Chicken’s 2017 pop-up arrived, a hunger for the scorching dish had washed over the city. It began slowly years ago, with restaurants like Boneyard Bistro in the Valley serving its iteration of the then-lesser-known spicy fried chicken style. The fascination grew on menus across the city and was punctuated by the arrival of Memphis outfit Gus’s, which offered its own version of the spicy bird (different techniques, different seasonings, different levels of powerful heat) at the corner of Pico and Crenshaw. Then, in 2016, Howlin’ Ray’s jumped from its food truck to a storefront in Chinatown, and the boom began.

Soon, young speculators began to riff on and rip off the hot chicken style entirely, turning low-grade tenders into sliders with watery slaw and melted American cheese for a ravenous — but not particularly discerning — Instagram audience. There are hundreds of hot chicken options in greater Los Angeles today; the dish has made millionaires out of the Dave’s Hot Chicken owners, a trio of under-30 Armenian Americans in Los Angeles who have an eye for social media and personal branding, and rapper Drake is now a celebrity evangelist for the brand. Fried chicken sandwiches are so popular that fast-food chains are fighting advertising wars to win the allegiance of drive-thru diners; KFC launched its own “Nashville hot” tenders in 2016, followed in 2019 by a Nashville hot chicken-and-waffles combo.

“It’s a lot of imposters and ‘inspired’ individuals who are frying chicken and making it spicy,” says Prince, “but it is not Nashville hot chicken — at all.” Nashville hot chicken is a precision process involving a wet brine followed by a heavy batter coat (with some spices added straight to the dredge mix) and a longer cook. The chicken is often seasoned again to spice-level preference and ladled with even more warm, spiced oil to lock in its flavors and add depth. For places that follow the folkloric preparation popularized in Nashville, it’s all about bone-in meat, served in quarters, halves, or as whole cut chickens; sandwiches (usually breast meat, and served with little else but some pickles, a touch of sauce, or coleslaw) are a modern necessity for a younger audience.

Outside of Howlin’ Ray’s, Prince believes there is little actual Nashville to be found in Los Angeles. The Princes quietly began introducing the real-deal hot chicken to Southern California in the ’90s at small family and community gatherings, and Prince spent years perfecting her personal craft and honing her business’s vision: Stay small, stay authentic, and stay close to the family. “I’m in this for the family’s legacy,” she says. “I’m in this because I’m passionate about being a restaurateur. This food is a gift that came from my ancestors.”

A woman with a mask in black kitchen uniform puts a tray of chicken up on a shelf in a kitchen.

Prince can be found working all areas of the restaurant.

A frame holds pages from the LA Times about Nashville chicken.

A slew of good, early press trickled off after the first year.

Today, Hotville remains the only Black-owned restaurant with a veritable family connection to the dish’s origins, but that fact hasn’t translated to wide success in the market.

It hasn’t been for lack of attention. Since first opening Hotville Chicken, Prince has landed features and shout-outs in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Black-run Los Angeles Sentinel, the New Yorker, and CNN, among other places. The media section of Hotville Chicken’s website currently includes 78 stories that either mention Prince or feature her exclusively. For a time, that concentrated press attention led to long lines of customers. People wanted to taste the attachment to the Nashville original, if only to compare it with the big Los Angeles players like Dave’s and the city’s own Dinah’s and Roscoe’s.

Now, Prince wonders if the fleeting media attention will sustain her through next year. “I don’t know that all that press really translates into dollars, because I’m struggling to make payroll,” she says.

The restaurant’s physical location hasn’t helped. Prince was purposeful about opening in Crenshaw because she lives, works, and worships in the community; she believed, too, that adding a Black-owned business with an impactful history to the neighborhood was the right thing to do. Her partner (both personally and professionally), Greg Dulan of the famous Dulan’s Soul Food nearby, worked to seal the deal at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall, using his local connections to help draw interest for the incoming Hotville Chicken. They’ve found that the hurdles are bigger than they’d anticipated. “Black folks in this community don’t know about hot chicken, they don’t know Nashville hot chicken was started by a Black family,” Prince recalls Dulan saying at the time. “And I said, ‘Really?’ because I just assumed that everybody knew.”

A glass display case holds Hotville merchandise like T-shirts, hot sauces, hats, and more.

The Hotville name has struggled to resonate in LA’s crowded hot chicken scene.

Hotville’s issues have been further compounded by trouble at the mall itself. Once an anchor of the area, the struggling property was sold (but not closed) to a development group that plans to insert housing, offices, retail spaces, and new restaurants in the coming years, despite some vocal objections from longtime residents. Those changes are still to come, putting Hotville in the precarious position of having to constantly tell people in the immediate neighborhood that they, like the mall, are open for business.

“We’ve got to change the mindset about the mall,” says Prince. “I’m a part of the mall, and I’m very proud of that. If I was a shining star with lines around the block, and nobody else was siphoning off of that success, that doesn’t necessarily make me a success. I wasn’t raised that way. I’m not winning unless everyone else is winning. Post & Beam, Southern Girl Desserts — we check in with each other weekly. That’s the village mentality.”

That trio of restaurants shares a similar problem: Every day, customers who drive onto the property (there is little foot traffic) emerge from their cars with a surprised look, asking how long Hotville has been open and wondering whether the mall is closed for good. Often, the only reason they’re pulling in is that they saw someone leaving Hotville’s semi-obscured front door. Prince never wanted to be “hidden,” but she underestimated the difficulties of the restaurant building she now occupies. Many things she first saw as a bonus to the property — ample parking, a standalone building with little need to change the look, access to a broader retail plaza — have instead become a kind of albatross, weighing down growth.

“I can admit that I was really drawn to this because it was turnkey,” says Prince of the Hotville building. “It felt like a divine appointment to walk in and have chicken wire on the walls already. I didn’t have to put that much of a dime into it.” Still, at 2,800 square feet, the restaurant is far bigger than she needs for her daily output. Prince recently ran a sales report that found that 70 percent of her customers still live more than three miles away — some locals simply aren’t finding her; others aren’t returning regularly.

A close up of a fried chicken sandwich with pickles on a bed of french fries.

Hotville’s fried chicken sandwich is as good as they come, but it has competition.

That hurts Prince. She is far from an outsider in Crenshaw and wants to see Hotville succeed here — especially here. “I was very intentional about being in a neighborhood where I work, live, play, worship,” she says. “Where I educate my child, where I shop. I do all that right here.” But in Crenshaw, even well-meaning folks are sometimes kept at arms’ length, particularly as growing fears of gentrification and economic uncertainty grip the community. Many area residents live in a food desert, with Crenshaw ranking 232 out of 265 neighborhoods by median income. Not far away, West Adams has become a cautionary tale for many who see a similarly historic Black neighborhood succumb to a kind of upper-class, and largely white, new monoculture, while longtime Black and Latino residents are forced out or left behind. Prince says that she’s ultimately proud to have put Hotville Chicken in “the underserved community that we’re in,” even with the ongoing challenges the restaurant has faced to find its local footing.

“It pains me to see the food insecurity in the area,” says Prince. “We’re doing our part to give back; we serve our community really well. But it’s hard to fill these seats.”

Prince says she can often tell the difference between locals and travelers who come to Hotville Chicken. “I have to say, a lot of the guests — who I call kinfolk — they don’t look like me,” she says. “They’re not reflective of the demographics of this particular zip code, which is surprising. It’s not what I thought it was going to be.” While Los Angeles County’s population of 10 million is only roughly 9 percent Black, Crenshaw and nearby neighborhoods like View Park have collective demographics north of 75 percent Black. Head more than three miles north, east, or west, though, and the population shifts are palpable.

An empty booth at Hotville.

The local neighborhood has been slow to embrace Hotville the way Prince had hoped.

“You caught me at a point where I’m really scratching my head,” says Prince, who vacillates between a deep conviction about running a business in Crenshaw and the potential for Hotville’s role in the neighborhood, and the reality that many of the closest residents still, two years in, either do not know about or have not connected meaningfully with the restaurant. Prince enjoys running food to the homes of nearby seniors when the orders come in and relishes the conversations she has with returning and new customers. “The Crenshaw community, they’ve got a gem on their hands,” she says. “I don’t think everyone’s found it yet, but they’ve just got to keep digging.”

How long Hotville Chicken can remain in business is the looming question. In Prince’s ideal world, the restaurant is fully and deeply embraced by Crenshaw, becoming a Black-owned restaurant on par with Dulan’s; in striving toward that ideal, she has repeatedly declined financial offers to move elsewhere. But her family’s connections are still strong in Nashville, Tennessee, and selling out to a franchise generator like the Wetzel’s Pretzels family (as Dave’s Hot Chicken did) would remove her money worries overnight. So why not let the money in?

“I’ve had multimillion-dollar offers before,” says Prince. “I understand why my aunt André said no to those deals 30 years ago and why I say no now. This is who I am and what I love. That might put me in a grave one day, but that’s okay. You don’t get this kind of relationship with your customers by having 200 locations. You just can’t.”

Those relationships may not save Hotville. Most of the chicken-loving country has long since disassociated the Princes with the product they created; it is no longer enough for people to simply know that Prince is cooking her family’s authentic recipe right here in Los Angeles. What’s left, then, is a restaurant selling a popular dish in a saturated market while relying on a location that has struggled to gain traction with its closest customers.

“I don’t have the answers,” says Prince. “I have to try not to be Super Woman and have a solution for everything. What do I do well? I fry chicken well.”

Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin