Even when he’s sitting in front of a box of Mrs. Winner’s fried chicken and biscuits, John Buttolph still looks like an attorney. The 63-year-old, who has no food or restaurant experience, stepped away from his 35-year career as a lawyer to focus on resurrecting the disappearing fried chicken chain in the Southeast.
Founded in 1979, Mrs. Winner’s was once a staple in the quick-service restaurant fried chicken and biscuits market, known for authentic Southern fried chicken, made-from-scratch biscuits and hot-frosted cinnamon swirls. But after some financial mismanagement, the beloved southeastern chain went bankrupt and shuttered all of its company-owned stores in 2010. The footprint went from 184 locations to just 12.
Since then, not a week has gone by without some sort of public plea to bring back Mrs. Winner’s to the people.
That’s where Buttolph, who had been hired as general counsel for the chain in 2009, comes in.
“After spending a couple years working with the management of the company, working with the landlords on the rented stores, the vendors, and customers— it was apparent to me that there was a tremendous affection for this brand and people just didn’t understand why all the stores were closing,” he says.
Several years following the bankruptcy, Buttolph had the opportunity to acquire the intellectual property associated with Mrs. Winner’s.
“There were no stores left, no equipment, just a trademarked name,” Buttolph says. “That was really it. The former owners of the company weren’t involved in the trademark.”
In 2012, Buttolph made the move to acquire the trademark and set up franchising opportunities. He says that he had to clean house a little bit first — there were some individuals operating Mrs. Winner’s that weren’t affiliated with corporate, but he offered them ways to stay involved in the company. He has is also recruiting new franchisees, with the goal of having 100 new restaurants open within the next five years.
And people are committed to helping bring the brand back.
In Memphis, Mrs. Winner’s social media director, Rachel Pedersen, noticed residents begging for the chain to return to the city. Pederson enlisted the help of her husband and father to invest a majority of the funds necessary to open the restaurant — but then the community helped raise around $30,000 in additional funds via a crowdfunding campaign.
Then in Atlanta, there are already six new restaurants being raised from the ashes of Mrs. Winner’s. The first debuted in several months ago and the demand was through the roof. The drive-thru line was so long that patrol cars needed to direct traffic, people waited for two hours to the taste of the Southern fried chicken, and the enthusiasm hasn’t let up since.
Chris Murray is an Atlanta franchisee for Mrs. Winner’s. His location opened up about three months ago, but he has been a fan of their food for a long time.
“Oh yeah — Mrs. Winner’s was one of the biggest things in Atlanta,” Murray says. “They’re country fried steak? Real big.”
In the time he has been open, Murray says that his location has turned into something of a celebrity hotspot — garnering visits from Georgia Congressman John Lewis, Atlanta Hawks center Dwight Howard, and reps from the Tyler Perry studios.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support from the community,” Murray says. “To be honest, they show a lot of love and appreciation for it.”
And that’s exactly the reason that a Buttolph quit his job to resurrect a chicken chain — the deep-fried local lovin’. Ultimately, he’d like to see Mrs. Winner’s expand into northeastern cities like Chicago and Detroit, but in the meantime, the revival of Mrs Winner’s Fried Chicken and Biscuits is off to a delicious start.