BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — The chicken pot pie business is sizzling here in Salem.
Owner/chef Ken Rothwell, 47, opened his first Ken’s Kickin’ Chicken, selling handmade chicken pies, on North Street in 2011. Now he has a fledgling chain.
In September, he expanded to a second location at the corner of Maple and Chestnut streets (Route 129) in Lynn. Last week, he signed a lease and started construction on a third location, in West Peabody, in Bonkers Plaza on Lowell Street.
Rothwell, a Merrimac resident who grew up in Salem’s low-income Point neighborhood, plans to have five retail stores open by fall and is already scouting locations in Revere and Reading. Someday, he says, his dream would be to open a Ken’s Kickin’ Chicken in Sarasota, Fla.
The first store was an extension of his custom catering business and was meant to keep his employees off unemployment in the winter when catering jobs dried up.
“I figured if I could sell 10, 20 chicken pot pies a day, I could keep everybody working, you know. And, now, we sell anywhere from 500 to 800 a day,” he said.
He employs 43 people, about half of whom are full time, and plans to hire another six to 10 full-time workers in the next two months. Before he started Kickin’ Chicken, just four employees worked full time, he said.
Although the catering business is going strong — he has 60 weddings booked so far for this year — it is the chicken pot-pie business that is booming.
The large chicken pot pies weigh in at 5 pounds each and can feed up to six people. They retail for $21. The store also sells small, individual pies for $6.95. The pies are made by hand from fresh ingredients, using Bell & Evans chicken. They have a shelf life of about four days, after which they can be frozen for longer storage.
“It’s definitely a great product,” said Heather Lupis of Salem, Rothwell’s office manager. “And we are just trying to find the right location to open in so that we don’t grow too fast and we lose the quality of the product. Because the quality is the most important thing.”
The pies and other foods are made in a large commercial kitchen in a warehouse at 7 Franklin St., just down the street and around the corner from the store. He’s been catering at that location for approximately 10 years and says there’s still plenty of room to expand.
So far, the pies are selling like hot cakes in Lynn.
“It’s been a very successful location,” Lupis said. The store does about half its business in prepared foods, like fresh chicken salad, stuffed shells, and ziti and meatballs, and half in pot pies.
“Lynn is turning out to be better than Salem some days,” Rothwell said. The stores always have a new type of prepared food daily.
Rothwell is not selling his pies wholesale to a supermarket, at least not yet. He worries that a wholesale operation might jeopardize quality with mass production.
“Everything we do is by hand,” Rothwell said.”We cut our own carrots, we cut our own dough, we roll our own dough by hand. We make our own gravy. We cook almost 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of chicken a day before we make the stock for the gravy.”
Many may know Rothwell as a local chef who ran the former A Taste of Thyme Cafe on Washington Street in Salem, which opened in 2000. His restaurant was part of a restaurant renaissance in the neighborhood, and he still has the sign in his office.
He’s a self-taught chef, and he worked as the executive chef at the former Lyceum Restaurant in Salem when he was 18, he said. He is also the in-house caterer at the Oceanview of Nahant function hall.
“You know what I like about cooking?” he said. “I like the gratitude I get when I see people enjoy my food.”
Rothwell also knows something about gratitude, and he tries to give back, donating about 200 pies a month to the Salvation Army, he said. He feeds the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem, with 300 kids, a couple of times a year.
“The Boys and Girls Club is my No. 1 charity,” said Rothwell, who was a member of the club as a kid growing up. “It’s my favorite charity. Believe it or not, you go there and some of those kids — you are in your own backyard — and they don’t get meals at night. It’s tough for me to see that.”
Rothwell’s family consists of his wife, Paula, and their three kids — Cody, who attends the University of New Hampshire; Jared, a senior at St. John’s Prep; and his daughter, Makenzie, an eighth-grader at Pentucket Regional.
While his business is growing, it has not been an easy few years for him personally.
He was diagnosed in March 2010 with polycythemia vera, a blood disorder that Rothwell said is part of the leukemia family. He was in the hospital all of May. He has had his spleen removed and suffered four strokes in the past three years. He is being treated at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and he takes daily chemotherapy.
Still, he is putting in the long hours at a time when most would slow down.
“The more I work, honestly, the better I feel,” he said. Some days are better than others, and he relies on office manager Lupis and Jill Field, the operations manager, and others to get him through.
“You are only as good as your team,” he said, “and my team is great.”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.