A loud knock echoed over conversations from the hungry horde of customers congregating at the South Memphis intersection. A savory sweet aroma wafted into the night as the truck’s cook cautiously opened the door. He faced an irritated police officer.
“You heard my partner yesterday,” barked the young officer. “He told you to leave … and never return.”
Had Lafayette Williams, owner of Ching’s Hot Wings in East Memphis, heeded those orders and abandoned his passion 13 years ago, this popular eatery might not exist. Thankfully, Williams is no stranger to adversity.
The founder and owner of Ching’s, a haunt for both professional and collegiate athletes, grew up in a “back alley” just a few blocks from the historic Stax Records.
“Stax was thriving,” Williams recalls. “It was right before Isaac Hayes won a Grammy, which was huge for the city.”
As a youngster, Williams had two constants in his life — music and food — and managed to avoid the pitfalls that befell many of his friends. By the age of 8, he had joined (and been kicked out of) the Black Panther Party. By 28, he had attended LeMoyne-Owen College for 10 years and taken every business course in the curriculum.
“I always knew I would go into business, but I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do,” Williams explains.
Over the next 20 years, he continued to work hard as a real estate broker, but he still felt that something was missing. Then it dawned on him while eating in a local restaurant one day: He should serve people in another way — through good food.
“I thought to myself, I can do this,” Williams says with a smile. Although Memphis already had hot wing restaurants, Williams had an advantage: He knew the value of effective customer service.
So aided by close friends and inspired by his mother, whom he regarded as the “greatest cook I’ve ever seen,” Williams opened Ching’s in 2003.
Over the restaurant’s next 12 years in an unassuming strip off Getwell Road, half a mile south of the University of Memphis campus, Williams has witnessed a culture shift in the surrounding community. He says the neighborhood has declined, due largely in part to people forgetting the importance of helping others. But even amid this attitude shift, Williams notes a common denominator: “People gotta eat.”
Ching’s has carved out a unique niche in the Memphis community, serving a variety of wings — ranging from Lemon Pepper to Hot to the most popular, Honey Gold — along with ranch dressing, signature ramen-noodle-seasoned French fries, and a seemingly endless list of loyal customers. “They know my order by voice,” says Matt Washburn, a U of M junior and longtime Ching’s devotee. “They’re friendly every time I go pick it up.”
A rendezvous point with its own must-have food group, Ching’s also attracts local football and basketball teams who frequently pack the joint during the season, devouring the wings and specially seasoned fries between practices. But Ching’s doesn’t exclusively cater to the Bluff City. Ole Miss football players demand that Williams’ wings be delivered to Oxford before their games. And beloved former Memphis Tiger DJ Stephens and rapper Drake make pilgrimages to the restaurant when they touch down in Memphis.
Williams’ commitment to customers extends to his employees, many of whom study at nearby schools. When a Memphis ice storm left local roads littered with auto accidents earlier this winter, Williams personally called his cashiers and told them not to come in for the next few days. He cares both about their safety and their futures.
“If it comes to exam time and we don’t have enough people, we can shut down,” he says confidently. “That’s just my philosophy. It should be education first for these girls.”
Keniece Williams, a U of M student who has worked at Ching’s for over a year, appreciates the support of her boss. “He’s an understanding and smart guy who really cares about us on a personal level,” she says.
Despite the restaurant’s success (the Ching’s team cooks a couple thousand wings for customers each day), Williams still isn’t satisfied. He doesn’t like how Ching’s wings can cool off by the time they are delivered, so he hopes to take his wings on the road within the next year.
“I started this business out of a food truck,” he says. “I want to buy one so I can drive out in the community and give everyone hot wings that are as fresh as the ones coming out of our kitchen.”
Ching’s Hot Wings
1264 Getwell Road (901-743-5545)4 StarsFood: Chicken wings (party and whole) and tenders, ranging in flavor from Honey Gold to Suicide. Lemon-pepper seasoning is optional, but don’t skip it.Prices: The popular eight-piece party wing combo includes seasoned fries and drink ($8.49). For catering or large groups, opt for 10- to 100-piece party wing platters ($7.49-$70.99).Drinks: For a sweet fix, try Orange Mound Punch or G-Street Punch, a Memphis-blue concoction commonly known as Blue Drink.Extras: Seasoned fries ($2.49) accompany combo meals, but also try crispy fried okra ($2.99) and smoked sausage ($2.75).Atmosphere: Live games on flat screens and photos of Memphis athletes (past and present) shape a sports-centric vibe for casual dining.Open:11 a.m.-10 p.m., Monday-Saturday noon to 6 p.m., Sunday
Eric Bourgeois is a freelance writer from Charleston, South Carolina, who is currently attending the University of Memphis.