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Wednesday, Jun 7, 2023

Keeping With Tradition

When Roda Hadi, Clara Huling and Willie Stanford first opened Les Sisters Southern Kitchen in 1986, New Orleans-style restaurants were all the rage and it was no wonder that the restaurant met with almost instantaneous success. More surprising is the fact that the Chatsworth-based restaurant has survived for more than two decades, even as the New Orleans-style cooking trend has faded. Ask Kevin Huling, son of one of the original owners, and he’ll say the simple reason is “dumb luck and baptism by fire.” But as he continues, it becomes clear that Huling is among the biggest reasons Les Sisters has withstood that test of time. He personally oversees the operation daily, insisting that what Les Sisters serves is exactly what customers expect. “I want people to know there is a guy who cares about what you eat, how fast you get it and that everything is made with love,” he said. “Consistency is key.” A reluctant entrepreneur, Huling had no intention of taking over the business his mom, Clara Huling, founded with two of her closest friends. But when Clara Huling died suddenly, her son found himself with a legacy he wanted to preserve. Since then, although he has added a few personal touches, he has largely left the original restaurant intact. Les Sisters’ original owners came with three different heritages and cooking styles. There was Clara Huling’s southwestern style soul food and a killer gumbo. Roda Hadi, who came from Lake Charles, La., brought the New Orleans Cajun and Creole flavors. And Willie Stanford, who grew up in New York, brought the East Coast southern style. Together, they developed a menu that included Cajun, Creole and soul food dishes including jambalaya, gumbo, southern fried chicken, catfish and hushpuppies. Their first choice for the restaurant location in Granada Hills was dashed when the landlord of the site they had entered escrow on, backed out. “The landowner didn’t want to draw what he called ‘that element’ so this was Plan B,” said Kevin Huling of the Chatsworth location. The three women ultimately split up for financial and health reasons, leaving Huling’s mom to run the restaurant herself until her death in 1992. Kevin Huling was working toward a private investigator’s license at the time, a career transition he chose after his children were born because his job as a district manager for a footwear retailer required him to be out of town too often. “There wasn’t a question of who would take over,” Huling recalled. “They just gave me the keys and said run with it.” Huling confesses that he continues to run the restaurant like a retail store, following retail inventory principles like first in-first out and featuring the most popular items rather than trying out new recipes. The restaurant was so small, it necessitated keeping buying simple. “Everything is fresh. We don’t have a big freezer,” he said. Early on, he added lunchtime fare like tacos and burritos to accommodate the many workers in the area who needed faster service. But after the Northridge Earthquake many of those businesses left, and the fast-lunch menu was discarded. Huling made some other changes. He stopped permitting smoking in 1993, well before restaurants were required to; he stopped serving iced tea and lemonade with sugar already added; and he stopped cooking with white salt. “I will make a recipe with enough salt to give it flavor, but I’m not going to add salt because salt and sugar killed my family,” he said, referring to his mom’s diabetes and the prevalence of high blood pressure in the African American community. He began substituting rice oil for vegetable oil in 1994 because he found it didn’t burn as quickly, but he has never advertised that Les Sisters cooking contains no trans fats. Following the earthquake he did some remodeling, expanding the kitchen slightly and putting on a new coat of paint, a combination of mint green and deep lavender that Huling calls “mardi gras colors.” The kitchen will, upon request, grill many of the dishes instead of frying them. And Huling has modified portion sizes from the originals, which he refers to as “stupid.” But for the most part, the menu and method of preparation remain the same as they were back when the restaurant first opened 21 years ago May 19. Huling believes that is one of the reasons the restaurant has survived for so long. “I like staying traditional and consistent,” Huling said. “If you expect traditional southern food, it shouldn’t be gourmet-ed up. If you want catfish and hushpuppies, you want it the way grandma made it.” In its best year, 1997, Les Sisters took in $490,000, but most years revenues are closer to $360,000 to $380,000. And while Huling has often thought about adding entertainment, the idea remains a dream. “What I would love is for someone to see the value of this cuisine and want to invest,” he said. “We’ve lost so many venues where you can eat and listen to jazz or blues in the Valley. I would love to do that.” Then his voice trails off and he shakes his head. “The dream is there,” he says. “The risk taking ” SPOTLIGHT – Les Sisters Southern Kitchen Year Founded: 1986 Revenues in 1987: $210,000 Revenue in 2006: $382,000 Employees in 1987: 5 Employees in 2006: 13 Goal: To continue building business and open another warehouse in the Santa Clarita area.

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