Just like the chicken that bears his name, Jack Pirtle was one of a kind. Growing up poor in Toone, Tennessee, he was splitting logs for railroad ties when he was little more than a boy. He was a hard worker, from the start of his life to the end, so it was only fitting that he marketed first his sit-down home cooking eateries and later his chicken restaurants to the working man.
Jack worked as a millwright, a mechanic, a brakeman for the railroad and a maintenance man before he entered the restaurant business at age 43. His first restaurant stayed open 24 hours because the nearby Firestone plant did, too. It’s fair to say that he expected the same work ethic from his employees that he exhibited, but he never expected more than he was willing to give himself.
“If you knew what to do and did it like he wanted, you never had a problem with Mr. Jack,” said Carrie Watts, one of the numerous longtime employees hired by Jack Pirtle and still working for his son, Cordell, today.
Shirley Benson, who has been with the company since 1970, recalled that it wasn’t always so simple.
“I thought I knew what I was doing, I’d sure done it enough, but one day he told me to stop working and he took over. He said ‘Go sit under the tree,’ and I stayed out there till my shift was over,” she said.
But she laughs a little when she tells the story. Jack was a man who knew one way to do things—his way—and everyone around him knew it.
He was a man with little education but with a natural talent for business and a true gift for mechanics. He not only designed the elaborate frying and grease recapturing system used in his restaurants, he built them. He also built the early buildings himself—he couldn’t afford to have anyone else do it—and he built the only house he ever owned with his own hands, too. When he was impressed with a poultry saw, instead of just buying a few, he built six—one for each store.
He employed mostly women in his stores.
Flora Hearvey, who’s worked for Jack Pirtle’s for 32 years, laughed when she remembered that. “He knew a man might knock his head off,” she said.
“Hmph. Some of those women were pretty tough, too,” said Henry Pete, another loyal and longtime employee.
Jack was at the stores every day, wearing his white overalls. For years his employees also dressed in white—women in dresses only. It was so rare to have a man working at Jack Pirtle’s that when Henry was first hired in 1970, he had to wear a dress tucked in like a shirt.
And while the employees kept the phones buzzing between stores, calling to tell co-workers when the boss was on the way, he was also known as a compassionate employer. A woman who had polio was allowed to wear pants under her dress. A perk of employment was a Sunday dinner for every employee and their family.
“If there was chicken left at the end of the day, he’d say ‘Take it home and feed your family,’” Flora said. “We raised our kids on that chicken and the money we made.”
Jack was often generous with money, too. When Carrie was pregnant with her first son, Jack gave her an unexpected gift.
“I got the first $100 bill I ever had from Mr. Jack,” she said. “He said, ‘I want you to buy that boy all the diapers and milk you can get.’ I asked him how he knew it was going to be a boy and he said, ‘I know. It’s going to be a boy.’”
Each week his employees received their wages in cash in little yellow envelopes. If it was a good week, there was often a little extra.
“If your pay was $40 or $50 and you’d open it up and find an extra $20 in there, well, you felt rich,” Flora said.
“He took care of his employees. There was many a time he’d help me pay the rent, and he wouldn’t let anybody take out a garnishment on anybody. He always said his employees didn’t make enough money to be garnisheed. He’d reach into his own pocket and pay it,” she said. “If you worked hard, he respected you.”
Jack kept working hard, too. A newspaper photograph from 1981 shows him on a riding lawnmower at his store on Thomas. This was two years after his retirement, and he’s quoted saying: “If I get up in the morning with nothing to do, I’ll start finding things wrong with me. If I get up and get out to work, I come back home feeling pretty good.”
But it wasn’t just the grass he kept up. While eventually the time would come when Jack and his wife Orva traveled extensively with the Blackwood Brothers, the popular gospel singers, and made trips around the world, Jack never forgot his humble beginnings.
“He never had very much his whole life, so when he finally got some money, he wanted a Cadillac,” Cordell recalled.
So Jack got his Cadillac, but he put a homebuilt hitch on it so he could haul a trailer. He’d fill it with asphalt and go store to store, patching potholes in his parking lots.
“He’d patch the holes, then drive back and forth over it with the Cadillac to pack it,” Cordell said.
“Those were the good old days,” said Elaine Taylor, who’s been a cook with Jack Pirtle’s for 33 years. “We all worked hard and we made a little money. And we’re all a family today.”
Jack Pirtle died at age 83 in 1985, six years after turning over the business to Cordell. Orva Pirtle passed away in 1990 at 87, but the company the couple built still thrives.
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