"About a year ago, I was sitting at my house and wanted some Bay Bays, but I didn't want to drive all the way to West Palm Beach to get my own fried chicken," says Bay Bays Chicken & Waffles owner Israel Johnson. "When I told my wife later that day, I'll never forget what she said: 'Maybe that's God's way of telling you to open in Boynton Beach.' And here we are."
On Friday, August 19, Johnson will open his third Bay Bays restaurant, which he is calling his flagship location. The 1,900-square-foot space features an open kitchen viewable from the seated service dining area, which features black booth seating filed neatly along red, orange, and brick walls adorned with oversized photos of Bay Bays' food. The custom-designed space will allow Johnson to show future franchisees what their own Bay Bays could look like, an opportunity available to people in the continental U.S.
It's a success story for this college-professor-turned-entrepreneur, who took a leap of faith in September 2012 when he opened the first Bay Bays Chicken & Waffles off Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach. A second location came in June 2014 off Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.
At the time, the restaurant was one of the only establishments in Palm Beach or Broward County specializing in the classic combination of Southern-style fried chicken and Belgian waffles. It encouraged Johnson to amend his company's slogan, "Great food, great people," to also include, "Let's eat, America!" in honor of the classic comfort food pairing.
"Being at the universities [I teach for], surrounded by so many different cultures, not only changed my culinary perspective. It changed my life," says Johnson. "That's what you're tasting in my food. A spice blend designed to appeal to everyone."
While the Bay Bays menu has changed some over the years, Johnson's specialty hasn't: a few pieces of fresh-fried chicken piled atop giant, homemade Belgian waffles. That consistency, according to Johnson, is also the key to his success.
"Over the years we tried experimenting with a lot of different soul foods, but I've learned to focus on my core business, and that's the chicken and waffles — eighty percent, to be exact," says Johnson, who continues to teach business and hospitality management for two local colleges. "There are a lot of places across the country that do chicken and waffles, but I'm proud to say that to this day, Bay Bays is the only one that specializes in it."
Today, Bay Bays fried chicken and waffles are cooked using the same recipes and method Johnson first created: hormone-free, never-frozen chicken fried in small batches using a special blend of spices that offers just a touch of heat. Waffles — now six flavors in all including lemon, red velvet, and cornbread — are made-to-order and also include several gourmet variations that are large enough to make a meal by themselves, from apple-smoked bacon to peanut butter and jelly.
Johnson may have mastered chicken and waffles, but he stresses he wouldn't have come this far without a lot of patience and — most importantly — listening to his guests. The restaurateur even set up a toll-free so customers would be able to leave feedback any day, any time.
"That information has been so valuable to me and to the success of Bay Bays," says Johnson. "It's what's helped me to get this far."
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The menu does offer a few other comfort food favorites, including chicken wings, ribs, and Southern-style sides like collard greens, steamed cabbage, or mac and cheese. One of the most popular dishes is Johnson's own appetizer creation, the Grits Hot Bowl, an eight-ounce portion of creamy grits mixed with chopped bacon and topped with melted cheese.
"Today, my number one complaint is that I don't have enough room," says Johnson. "That, I can deal with."
Bay Bays Chicken & Waffles. 326 N. Congress Ave., Boynton Beach; 561-364-1187, baybays.com.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.