Restaurants / Openings

$1.8 Million and Plenty of Love Later, Killen’s Much-Anticipated Heights Restaurant Opens With Comfort Food Power

Ronnie Killen's Unexpected and Sometimes Frustrating Odyssey Ends With a Special Houston Restaurant Unveiling

BY // 08.18.20

Only 24 hours before opening his latest Houston restaurant, chef Ronnie Killen, fresh from an emergency run to Home Depot, blows into the eatery on Heights Boulevard steaming, not only from the mid-August heat but also from the inevitable frustrations that accompany a restaurant opening. But the moment he begins reminiscing about his grandmother’s cooking — inspiration for Killen’s— his demeanor easily changes.

His frown becomes a smile and faster than you can say fried chicken, Killen has your mouth watering for chicken ‘n’ dumplings, his famed German chocolate cake, meatloaf and other dishes from his grandmother’s kitchen that will eventually fill out the menu of what he calls Southern comfort food.

Killen had no idea the challenges he would face transforming the venerable Hickory Hollow barbecue joint into his concept of a down home eatery. Countless delays, the COVID-19 pandemic and a shocking $1.8 million later, his Heights restaurant is open for business. The hefty makeover, both inside and out, is the work of Sullivan, Henry, Oggero & Associates with design directed by the chef.

“The way I look at — things happen for a reason,” Killen says perched on one of the well-spaced (social distanced) bar stools. “And this took a lot longer that it was supposed to and maybe the pandemic is one of the reasons that it took so long with permitting and all that stuff.”

Barbecue is always on Ronnie Killen’s menu including that of Killen’s.
Barbecue is always on Ronnie Killen’s menu including that of Killen’s.

Fielding calls from restaurateurs, forced to close permanently because of the pandemic, Killen says that it wasn’t financially feasible to halt this particular endeavor. Stopping his plan would have ultimately cost him $2 million, he says, adding, “It’s a great time because opening one, it shows that our brand stands the test of time and it’s all the hard work that we put in to what we are doing.”

Hard work could well be Killen’s middle name. He spent the previous night (he admits to getting little sleep these days) testing linen napkins. You won’t find polyester anywhere in his linen cabinet. He stained them, loaded them with grease and washed them to see how they would hold up against a menu that includes barbecue, smothered pork chops with onion gravy, and grandma’s fried chicken. It’s just the way he is, in control of everything thereby guaranteeing that everything is perfection.

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From most perspectives, opening a new restaurant in the middle of a pandemic is insanity. That is, of course, not how Killen planned it. When he announced Killen’s in early 2019, he had expected to open no later than the fall of 2019. This is mid-August 2020.

“In the time that we’re in right now, I just think it will be neat for people to have food that is comforting, that would make them think of a childhood memory or make them think of something that puts a smile on their face,” Killen tells PaperCity. “That’s kind of what the food is all about.”

If a father is asked to choose his favorite child, he will most likely demure. Just as Killen would not like to favor one of his wildly successful restaurants over the others. But Killen’s is different.

He explains that inspiration for this baby comes from his grandparents, his father and uncle. He started cooking at age 8 and loved it so much that by the time he was in high school, he was cooking for his family nightly.

“That’s why this place is very special to me. It’s all about the food that I started cooking before I went to culinary school,” he says.

Icing on the cake for this honed restaurateur is his mother’s response after dining there on a friends and family night.

“I don’t ever remember grandma’s food ever tasting this good,” she told her son.

Killen’s is now open from 5 to 10 pm Tuesdays through Sundays. There will be no to-go service during the startup weeks. Of course, in some ways this is just another beginning for Ronnie Killen.

The man is never still. A new Killen’s Barbecue is set to open in The Woodlands in four to five weeks.

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