Call it a comeback.
After its footprint dwindled from a high of 185 stores down to zero locations, Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits is back and looking for franchisees to help the brand rebuild in the southeastern United States and continue expansion nationwide.
Unlike other restaurant brands looking to establish a presence, Mrs. Winner’s is already an immensely popular brand in the southeast that people are clamoring for, CEO John Buttolph said during a recent interview from the company’s headquarters in Atlanta.
“There are a number of cities throughout the southeast where the brand operated for years and remains extremely well known, where there are currently no locations: in Memphis and Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama and a number of other areas throughout the southeast where Mrs. Winner’s once had dozens of stores. Consumers are constantly contacting us through email and social media and asking when we will be back,” Buttolph noted.
Just how missed is the once ubiquitous restaurant in the southeast? Well …
“We FedEx Super Cinnamon Swirls to people around the south at their request,” the CEO explained.
Southern Fried Hospitality
Mrs. Winner’s is a quick service restaurant chain that offers traditional southern fried chicken along with an array of traditional southern side dishes and the aforementioned Super Cinnamon Swirl, which has been a staple at the restaurant for almost 50 years.
Founded in 1979, Mrs. Winner’s quickly became a southern tradition and surged to nearly 200 locations at its peak. After struggling through numerous ownership transactions in the late ‘90s, Mrs. Winner’s footprint had shrunk to just a handful of licensed locations by 2010.
In 2012, Buttolph was eager to leave his southern California business law practice and embark on a new journey away from the Orange County bubble. Having provided legal counsel for the former Mrs. Winner’s ownership team, he and his wife saw how beloved the brand was in the southeast and decided they wanted to revive the franchise. So, Buttolph purchased the trademarks and intellectual property and started the rebuilding process.
Prior to his purchase of the brand, the CEO explained, Mrs. Winner’s had largely relied on corporate ownership for expansion with just a handful of franchises. When he acquired Mrs. Winner’s, he refocused the strategy to a full franchise model for expansion.
So far, it’s been working well for Buttolph and Mrs. Winner’s. Currently, there are 14 franchised restaurants throughout Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina and another new location will open in McDonough, Georgia before the end of the year.
The CEO said he is looking for franchisees who have a passion for service and hospitality and who can manage people with empathy and strength. An ideal franchisee would have adequate capital to start a business along with a drive to succeed and a high standard of personal integrity.
Because the franchise is still growing, it is nimble and flexible when working with individual franchisees, he said. The franchisee also receives support from management in supply chain, food and labor cost management, and marketing.
Support and Training
Mrs. Winner’s experienced corporate team work with franchisees on site selection and development prior to opening. They also make it easy for owners to procure the equipment they’ll need and provide training for the franchisee’s general managers.
Onboarding franchisees includes several weeks of in-store training in food preparation and shift management. Additionally, the franchise has its own online university for continued training. The extensive five-week franchisee training program is designed to ensure consistency and prepare franchisees for ultimate success in their business venture.
If franchisees require funding, Mrs. Winner’s preferred lenders are available to provide financial assistance.
Once a franchise is ready to open, Mrs. Winner’s provides on-site marketing and operations opening support. The company also partners with a vendor to provide employee screening. The company’s field support teams visit franchise locations at least once per month to assist general managers and franchisees with any issues and to introduce new programs.
A strong purchasing and supply chain keeps all locations running smoothly, and a marketing co-op directed by the franchisees themselves gives them control over their promotions.
“Our franchisees work together to decide on a number of limited time offers and annual promotions,” Buttolph explained.
The CEO outlined his three priorities for franchisee support:
First, to drive top line sales through marketing and public relations; second, to work with franchisees to manage food and labor costs to industry standards, and third, to differentiate the Mrs. Winner’s brand from competitors by showcasing its famous southern hospitality.
“There is a difference, in our view, between typical customer service and exceptional customer hospitality and we strive for hospitality, which means we intend to hire people right from the get-go who have a heart for hospitality,” Buttolph explained. “We don’t want to teach people to smile. We want people to come into that first interview with a natural joy and welcoming attitude. We can teach them everything that they need to do, but we can’t teach them that.”
Heading in a Nontraditional Direction
Historically, Mrs. Winner’s has been associated with traditional stand-alone restaurants that offer eat-in and drive-through service. However, Buttolph is currently working to expand the brand’s franchise offerings in more non-traditional directions like express locations and smaller sites in places like food courts, military bases and travel centers.
While Mrs. Winner’s is constantly receiving messages inquiring about expansion into other places around the US, right now Buttolph is concentrating on getting back into those areas throughout the southeast where the brand is well known and sorely missed.
He receives weekly requests via email and social media to bring Mrs. Winner’s to places including out-state Georgia, eastern Tennessee, Memphis, Nashville, the northern panhandle of Florida, southern Virginia and the Carolina, all which are available to area developers with ready-made markets.
Here’s one comeback story that is well on its way to a happy ending.