Jack Pirtle built a local chicken business by taking care of the people he knew best: The working man. Mr. Jack, as he came to be known to the thousands of loyal customers Jack Pirtle’s Fried Chicken has known over the years, was exactly that.
He opened the first Jack Pirtle’s restaurant at 1217 Bellevue in 1957, but he’d already been in the restaurant business for 12 years, and had worked as a mechanic, a millwright, a maintenance man and a delivery man, among other things, before that.
In 1945, Jack and his wife Orva moved to Memphis and opened Jack’s Café at Thomas and Firestone. The Firestone plant was open 24 hours a day, so Jack’s was, too. The couple lived in a back room with their 1-year-old son, Cordell, because they couldn’t afford to pay rent after buying the restaurant. After two years, Jack closed the first restaurant, bought the High Hat Café, and a few other places before he ended up with the Jefferson Café at Jefferson and Third in Downtown Memphis. That’s when things started happening. Jack recalled hearing about the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in a 1981 interview with a reporter for The Commercial Appeal:
“In 1957, my breadman at the café was the nephew of Harlan Saunders,” he said. “He told me his uncle was selling fried chicken and people were just going wild after it.”
Jack and Colonel Saunders struck a deal and soon Jefferson Café was serving fried chicken three days a week, beginning on Valentine’s Day in 1957. By May, Jack was selling so much chicken that he needed a new restaurant. He did the unthinkable for a man who had built his family home with his own hands—he mortgaged the house, and bought the materials to build the first Jack Pirtle. In November, he opened a drive-thru restaurant modeled after one Colonel Saunders had taken him to see in Bismarck, North Dakota. The sign read “Jack Pirtle, Featuring Tender and Tasty Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Like several of the restaurants to follow, Jack actually constructed the building himself.
But business didn’t exactly boom. The intercom at the drive-thru was the first one in town, and folks just didn’t use it. Jack added a walk-up window, then instead of waiting for the people to come for the chicken, he took the chicken to the people. He bought cake boxes, rubber-stamped the restaurant’s name and address on them, and delivered free lunches to his base—the working man. It wasn’t long before the men were coming to buy their lunches, and even better, stopping by on Sundays with their families on their way to McKellar Lake or Riverside Park. Pirtle’s became their picnic food. So while he averaged $16 a day for the first two months after the store opened, a year later he was making $900 a day.
The chicken was good, and so was the chicken business. In 1961, Jack opened his second store on Summer Avenue, and then went on to open a store on Highland in 1962. Colonel Saunders was there for both, which were so successful that the police were called in to direct traffic.
In 1964, just as Jack opened the store on Poplar, Kentucky Fried Chicken issued an order that all stores selling its chicken conform to a certain look and menu. Jack, who offered other food such as his famous steak sandwiches, hamburgers, and foot-long chili dogs—and who had built his stores his way—decided to break ties.
He dropped the Kentucky Fried Chicken from his signs, adopted the blue and yellow color scheme, and with Orva, who had been a home economics teacher, created their own seasoning blend. With the blend came the legendary seasoning room at the Poplar store, where Jack mixed the blend that he personally carried to the stores.
“He had big tubs of seasonings and he’d measure it out in bags for say, 25 pounds of flour, or so much to make a bucket of chicken flour,” recalled Carrie Watts, who has worked for Jack Pirtle’s almost 40 years.
“He wouldn’t let you see it, either,” said Elaine Taylor, who has been with the company for 33 years. “It was his secret.”
After Jack mixed the spices, he would deliver it to all the stores, where the employees would blend it with the correct amount of flour to bread the chicken.
Jack was by all accounts a demanding boss. “He said “The right way is Jack’s way,” said Henry Pete, another employee with about 40 years of service.
“And it didn’t matter if it was logical or sensical,” said Cordell Pirtle, who took over the stores from his father in 1979, bringing the business model up to date and opening the subsequent stores.
“Mr. Cordell took over, and that’s when the fun began,” said manager Flora Hearvey, who has worked for the company for 32 years. “We’ve been having fun ever since.”
But it was Jack’s larger-than-life personality, his complete devotion to the quality of his food, and even the demands he placed on his employees that gave the company its firm foundation.
Carrie summed it up: “Say what you want about Mr. Jack, and he sure did want it done his way, but it’s his way that’s still supporting us all today.”
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