George W. Church, Sr., a retired incubator salesman with more than 20 years in the poultry industry, conceived the idea of offering freshly cooked, quality fried chicken at a time when only hot dogs and ice cream were marketed fast-food style.
Church reasoned that the food service industry would have to change its approach in order to capitalize on the opportunities created by population growth and increased mobility. By cutting the frills common to the restaurant industry philosophy of the day, Church felt he could deliver his product profitably at low cost with a more efficient use of capital and employees.
The first “Church’s Fried Chicken to Go” was located in downtown San Antonio, across the street from the Alamo. The restaurant sold only fried chicken. Church added French fries and jalapeños to the menu in 1955. George Church’s idea paid off, and at the time of his death in 1956, four Church’s were open. Other members of the family became active in the business, and by 1962 the chain had grown to eight locations in San Antonio.
George W. “Bill” Church, Jr. assumed chief operating responsibility for the family business in 1962. His father had already proved the economic viability of a low-overhead food outlet serving take-out food at a modest price. Bill Church dreamed of building the business into a nationwide organization.
Church and his management team stuck to the basics, and from 1962 to 1965 concentrated on rapid but tightly controlled expansion limited to the San Antonio area. By 1965, Bill Church and his older brother Richard had perfected a marinating formula for Church’s Fried Chicken that could be re-created almost anywhere in the world. The formula remains a closely guarded secret.
By 1967, the company was set to expand, and less than a year later it established the first Church’s restaurants outside Texas.
The Church family was bought out in October 1968, and in May 1969 Church’s Fried Chicken, Inc. became a publicly held company. At the end of 1969, over 100 Church’s restaurants were in operation in seven states. Between 1969 and 1974, Church’s grew by an additional 387 restaurants. At year-end 1974, there were 487 Church’s in 22 states with total revenues of more than $100 million. The highlight of this period was the opening of the national headquarters complex and manufacturing plant on a six-acre site in northwest San Antonio.
International expansion began in 1979, with the announcement of the first Church’s abroad. The company subsequently established locations in Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Indonesia.
The Church’s concept has always been based on the philosophy of simplicity of operation, starting with a limited menu, equipment designed to do one thing well, people trained to do one thing well and control of operational costs.
By 1989, Church’s was the second-largest chicken franchise organization in the United States. That was the year it merged with the number three chicken chain, Popeyes® Famous Chicken & Biscuits, headquartered in New Orleans. The Church’s concept remained distinct and separate from Popeyes®.
On November 5, 1992, America’s Favorite Chicken Company (AFC) — now called AFC Enterprises Inc. — officially became the parent company to Church’s Chicken, and moved its operations to headquarters in Atlanta.
After 12 years under the AFC umbrella, Church’s Chicken declared December 26, 2004 their Independence Day – the day Atlanta-based private equity firm Arcapita Inc. bought the fast food chain from AFC Enterprises, Inc. Under the new leadership, Church’s is prepared to expand their menu with the addition of Spicy Chicken and to expand their presence by growing the chain from 1,500 restaurants to 2,500 restaurants by 2010.
Known for its Southern-style chicken, Church’s also serves Southern specialties including fried okra, coleslaw, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob and its unique honey butter biscuits.