The Wallace Fowler family celebrated a golden anniversary of sorts during 2015. Last year marked the 50th year that the family’s fortunes were wed with Kentucky Fried Chicken.
After selling all but a handful of its stores in 1985, Fowler Foods Inc. has deepened its commitment to KFC and rebuilt its status as a leading franchise holder.
The Jonesboro company ranks as the 13th-largest KFC franchisee in the nation, and the combined 2015 revenue of its restaurants topped $74 million supported by a staff of 1,500. That wasn’t enough revenue to make this year’s list of the state’s largest private companies, but growth plans suggest a future appearance.
Chris Fowler, Wallace’s son and president of Fowler Foods, oversees a corporate menu of 50 KFCs, 15 KFC-Taco Bell combos and one stand-alone Taco Bell. The corporate footprint extends from Arkansas to Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi.
Fowler, representing the second generation of family leadership, is the current president of the Association of Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchisees.
“I grew up in KFC,” the 53-year-old executive said. “I was a cook in 1976. The only job I’ve ever had outside of the chicken business was laying asphalt in Fayetteville one summer.”
He and his father are unabashed devotees of Col. Harland Sanders and his legacy as the iconic founder and quality-control champion.
“We were doing it the Colonel way, and the Colonel liked us and visited us on his goodwill tours,” the elder Fowler said. “Our stores are very good producers, and we’ve always wanted to be on the leading edge of design and cleanliness.”
Pushed by franchisees, corporate KFC re-embraced the Colonel’s way of delivering “finger lickin’ good” food and winning over consumers. Sanders may have died in 1980, but his image still carries marketing sway.
Supported by a major marketing campaign that resurrected the Colonel’s visage, KFC sales improved 7 percent last year, buoyed by a same-store sales gain of 3 percent.
“We’re sort of living the dream that we all hoped would happen,” Chris Fowler said of the refocused efforts to recapture the chain’s magic. “I don’t know if things have looked this good for KFC since the 1970s.”
The re-Colonelization effort that began last year was accompanied by heightened quality standards for franchisees that include redesigned stores, with revamped kitchens as part of the inside-outside reworking.
“We’re going to be 100 percent converted to the new image by the end of the year, first quarter of next year at the latest,” Chris Fowler said. “No one else in among the largest group of franchisees will have all their stores upgraded before us. We’re committed to this.”
His ascent to the leadership of the national KFC franchisee group last year came at a momentous time in the chain’s history.
The push to reinvigorate KFC comes after privately held Chick-fil-A of Atlanta surpassed it in 2012 as the biggest chicken chain in the nation, with an estimated market share of 25.1 percent. KFC, owned by publicly traded Yum Brands Inc. of Louisville, Kentucky, held a 24.4 percent market share.
In 2014, Chick-fil-A ranked as the eighth-largest restaurant franchise with revenue of $5.7 billion, $1.5 billion more than No. 11 KFC. That fiscal feat is even more impressive because it was accomplished with 1,837 stores, fewer than half of KFC’s 4,164, and in only six days of selling per week.
Chick-fil-A’s success helped push KFC in a direction that Fowler and other franchisees had long advocated: reconnect with its rich history and re-establish its foundational commitment to quality food, facilities and service.
In a statement to his fellow franchisees, Fowler noted: “The Colonel is back. Kentucky Fried Chicken is back. We as a brand are celebrating our heritage and bringing back customers who haven’t eaten with us in a while. We are installing new equipment to make us better and remodeling our buildings to show that we are a great place to eat.”
The Fowler family’s corporate relationship with KFC dates to 1965, when a deal was struck to buy a Jonesboro restaurant from Chester Agee.
“From there, we were in the chicken business,” said Wallace Fowler.
The dank East Nettleton Avenue venue was replaced by a shiny new one at 1600 S. Caraway Road. That first KFC, the foundation of Fowler Foods, lives on in today’s 2020 S. Car-away Road location.
But the family’s emotional attachment to KFC goes back even further.
Wallace Fowler remembers living in Richardson, Texas, working as an assistant manager for Haverty Furniture’s five Dallas-area stores. On the weekend, he would take Chris and his brothers, Wally and Mark, to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken and watch the big planes take off and land at Love Field.
“It was a Sunday afternoon treat,” he said. “And I guess I was giving my wife a break, too.”
Fowler Foods was formed in 1970 to manage the growing number of KFCs. At its peak in 1985, the company operated 93 KFCs spread across seven states, which ranked as the fourth-largest franchise at the time.
“We were very successful, or lucky, maybe at growing the company quickly,” Wallace Fowler said.
In April 1985, 83 of its chicken restaurants were sold to Scott’s Food Services Inc. for $37 million, and Wallace Fowler redirected his energies to buying, building and selling bank franchises.
- June 1990: North Arkansas Bancshares sold to Union Planters Corp. of Memphis for $36.1 million.
- May 1997: Southwest Bancshares sold to Little Rock’s First Commercial Corp. in a $127 million stock swap.
- October 2013: Liberty Bancshares sold to Home BancShares Inc. of Conway in a $320.1 million cash-stock purchase.
The Fowlers retained a few KFCs and slowly began rebuilding the portfolio, often repurchasing stores sold to Scott’s. While his dad turned his attention to banking, Chris settled into Fowler Foods.
“A lot of people know where they were on Sept. 11, 2001,” the younger Fowler said. “I was at a KFC meeting in New Orleans when I gave an offer to buy the corporate-owned Memphis-area franchise.
“I said, ‘I know we have other things to worry about today, but let me give you this letter, and we’ll talk about it later.’ We took over the 27 stores in March 2002.”
While his son is directing Fowler Foods, Wallace Fowler is “almost totally uninvolved” and “loafing since the Liberty sale.”
“I’m in the warehouse making sure everything is stacked straight,” the elder Fowler quipped. “It was time to slow down and let someone else have it. He’s doing a good job, and it’s growing. We’ve remained aggressive.”
Chris Fowler hints at more deals to come for Fowler Foods, a product of his bullish outlook on KFC.