Ernest Williams was practically born in the kitchen.
“I used to sit on my mama’s counter and cut the onions. When I was about 6 or 7 years old, while everyone was playing outside, I was in the house cooking with my mom,” Williams recalls. “I mean, it’s like I go to sleep and wake up and God is telling me something different to cook. Putting [meals] together throughout the years and decades, it’s just simple to me. Cooking is like doing the ABCs.”
With his wife, Jackie, he’s on a mission to bring authentic soul food to the Springs, running a food truck as well as offering takeout, delivery and catering through their business, Williams Soul Food and Catering Services.
Williams was born and raised in Louisiana and believes he has been given a second chance at the perfect life. He wants to bring the love and culture of the South to Colorado Springs, one bowl of gumbo at a time.
“We got the food and we’ve got the mentality of Louisiana, the flavor, the love. We want to show people out here in Colorado Springs that Louisiana has got a lot of love for other people,” he said. “We want to show them our creations and the things that we do. It’s a different culture. I want people to be able to get good soul food outside of Louisiana. We’re not as expensive as most people and we give good portions because we love to eat too.”
Williams spoke with the Business Journal about his long and sometimes painful history with food, the struggle of owning a food truck during a global pandemic, and goals for 2021.
Talk about your path to this point in your career, both professionally and personally.
My mom and dad are from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, and they do a lot of cooking out there. [That’s where I learned] before I went to any classes. They do boudin sausage and all kinds of soul food for the family. They taught us how to raise and slaughter hogs to make the boudin. When we moved to Lake Charles — I grew up there — I went to high school. … After that, I was playing basketball before I started cooking — I really loved cooking. ... In Louisiana, it’s really hard to open up a soul food restaurant because people cook at home and they know how to cook. I went to school with the family gift because my mom was a chef, and my daddy was a butcher. The cooking just came from there. I took some culinary arts classes to get some more professional training. From there, I was trying to find my way. I got in a little trouble with the law. I got convicted and the funny thing is, I started cooking in the prison too. I [was incarcerated] for a total of 4½ years.
When I got out and got my record cleared and started getting my life back together, I entered into [the St. Martin Parish Adult Drug Court] program. It was a two-year program where they allow you to pick up some trades while getting convictions off your record. That tremendously helped me because I went offshore and worked on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. ... That’s when I discovered I just need to start cooking.
When my wife and I decided we were going to move to Colorado, I started working for Chili’s in [the] Cheyenne Mountain [neighborhood] and became a head grill chef over there. I stayed there for nine months and had all these gifts and talents and got frustrated and finally decided to let it go. I decided to start cooking for myself. One thing led to another and [Jackie and I] started selling [soul food] plates just on Tuesdays. … Next thing you know, we were selling every day.
Where does your food knowledge come from?
My mom [was] a certified chef at the Seven Seas in Lake Charles, Louisiana. That was uptown. That was one of the prestigious and biggest restaurants that lawyers and doctors would eat at. She was just an amazing cook. Sometimes ... she would leave the restaurant and come home and create an amazing meal. We’d be in the kitchen helping her. Most of my knowledge of food is from my family. They taught me how to make stuff you don’t make every day.
How has COVID impacted your business?
As of right now, we’ve been down about 50 percent of our usual number of customers. A lot of the breweries ... we can’t go there with the food truck because everyone is doing takeout or heated patios [and it doesn’t make financial sense] to park in front of a brewery to only see three people an hour. We are now offering delivery and takeout which helps with the financial strain because before we bought the food truck, we exclusively did takeout plates of soul food from [our home kitchen]. We’ve had to pay to replace the generator in the food truck — thank God it’s just the generator — and we’ll have it up and running again on Dec. 12.
What does the future of your business look like?
My CEO, who is my wife, Jackie — we always talk about what’s next. We rely on God to guide our next step, if that makes any sense. He got us through this whole thing — leaving Chili’s, her leaving Walmart, and eventually going into business ourselves. He opens a lot of doors.
Have you ever thought of opening a brick-and-mortar store?
That is the goal for 2021— to open a storefront and sit-down location. I’ve got my own seasoning. It’s something like a rub, but you can use it on anything! You can season your potato salad with it, and it tastes beautiful. It’s wonderful. I haven’t even promoted it yet. I really want to, but it’s just amazing and you can use it on anything. We do sell our frozen sausage now and we also have red beans and gumbo. You can buy all of that as a family pack. When you’re dealing with organic food like crawfish étouffée or crawfish tails — all of that is made fresh. You can’t just walk into Walmart and go get it. Thousands of people order it from Louisiana and get it shipped over here, so we can cut out the middleman. We have andouille sausage now.
In Louisiana, we’ve got wholesale because I’ve made a name for myself out there. They just love us to death, and I can’t even tell you enough about this man and what he does for us. He says he want to be behind closed doors, but he wants us to escalate our business. We cook like Louisiana people. You’re going to get some red beans and sausage and the water isn’t going to be dripping down your plate. It’s going to be some thick and rich stuff.
How would you describe your business environment?
We could be walking around, and people ask if we’re hiring. ... We have a 15-year-old mentee, with permission from her parents. She wants to learn the business. We also help convicted felons. We try to, because somebody gave me a second chance. I have one person — his name is Josh — he’s got his life together and has been working with me for almost three months now. He’s been really good; he’s changed his life.
What motivates you?
I would say the fact that God wakes me up to try to do this for other people. My wife, from Day 1 — she found out I was a chef and pushed me to do something. She’s a big motivator to me. She was already talking about food trucks before we even moved to Colorado. All of this has been a dream come true. When I went bad at one point, I still had those dreams in my head. I kept asking God to let them come true. I had to have patience. I had a change in heart and a change in mind.