Youngblood, Sweat and Tears
Seafood Restaurant Owner Twists Up the Food Game
The aroma of fresh crab legs and garlic butter sauce hits you in the nostrils right when you walk through the doors of The Twist restaurant. Each booth is occupied with customers waiting to get their seafood fix. Owner Ken Walker is seen in the kitchen working alongside his staff of eight.
Starting from Scratch. The Twist is the first restaurant that Walker has owned but he’s no stranger to the food industry. In high school and college, he worked for several restaurants including, Applebee’s and Red Lobster. “I’ve worked at cooking places my whole life, but I just didn’t know how to start my own,” said Walker. Ken quit his job working in the labs of Otis Spunkmeyer to pursue his dream fulltime.
He decided he would start by selling hotdogs. But without money to buy a hotdog stand, he purchased a do-it-yourself video and built wooden cart from scratch.
The cart passed the necessary health inspection, but Walker was still short on cash to pay for the $400 license. Not to be defeated, he sold boiled peanuts to raise the money. Once he was able to save enough, he purchased the license and set up his cart on a busy street corner. But Walker soon realized there were also franchise fees he needed to pay. After paying expenses, he only broke even so he was back to square one. In addition to money woes, Walker also dealt with large corporations that tried to stop him from setting up his cart near their businesses. He stood his ground though and remained persistent.
Twist It Up or Give Up. Three years later, Walker and his father built a more sophisticated cart that he called Ken’s All-Star Cart. He added wontons and spring rolls to the menu. The additions weren’t really a hit with customers. “It didn’t go over well. My lines weren’t exactly out the door. Only 10-20 people showed up,” he said.
Walker was at his breaking point and was about to give up. He took a trip home to Atlanta and had plans to close up the cart for good when he found seafood restaurant there booming with business. Walker waited in line for hours for a plate when he got the idea for his business. “A lightbulb went off in my head and I said bingo!”, he said. Walker took what money he had left, bought seafood and posted his creation on social media. The next day, 67 customers were lined up outside his cart. “I had found my niche,” he exclaimed. Business was finally booming. It was going so well that he caught the attention of Thomas’ English Muffins.
Representatives with the company wanted him to enter its National Food Truck Competition that promised a prize of $25,000. At first, Walker thought it was a joke and ignored phone calls and emails. Still unsure, the company sent Walker a $1,000 check to sweeten the offer. That was all the proof Ken needed. Ken entered into the competition confidently although he was the only food cart competing against food trucks from all across the country: “I’m the small guy. Y’all are going to remember me. I’m not going out like a punk,” he reflects.
At the start of the five-week competition, Walker was at the top. Votes from fans poured in from around the world. In the end, Walker beat out a food truck in San Francisco by 300,000 votes and took home the $25,000 prize. He is also the only African American in the World to win a national food truck competition. Walker used that money to open The Twist restaurant without having to secure a loan.
Lessons Learned Looking back on it, Walker remembers the hard work it took to get to where he is today. “I knew in my head I was going to be successful… the more I went through,” he said. “Even when I was getting kicked off street corners, I knew I had something special because nobody hates on anyone who’s not doing anything,” he added.
Word of Advice. Walker credits his success in managing his business to pure instincts. “Don’t listen to the opinions of people. Most minority businesses fail because of the opinions of others,” he advises. It’s why The Twist is only open on Friday and Saturdays despite numerous requests to open more often. “This works for me. If I opened more often and set up more locations, I wouldn’t be able to watch things as closely,” said Walker.
Keys to Success. A major key to Walker’s success is consistency. “If you’re consistently doing something, you’ll eventually get it right. People want the same flavor. That’s what makes them keep coming back,” he said.
Since winning the National Food Truck competition, Walker has become a brand ambassador for Sara Lee and is tasked with creating recipes for the brand. Right now, he is working on a project with a national television network. Walker is also adding to his entrepreneurial resume. When he’s not at The Twist or making creations for Sara Lee, Walker spends the rest of his time as a real estate agent. He’s gotten his real estate license and is working on building that business. To get to the next level, Walker hopes to have his own in-house marketing team. He says this will free him up to do other things. “You might be more skilled than me, but you won’t outwork me”, he said.