- Church’s Chicken launched its three-year turnaround in 2017, under the fresh leadership of CEO Joe Christina.
- The chain revamped operations and updated its deals. It is also investing in new tech.
- "We can’t just sit on our history and our heritage, we have to learn how to maximize the taste, flavor, the freshness of our product in a different way," Christina told Business Insider.
- Internationally, the company is expanding Texas Chicken and working to develop the sister chain as separate from Church’s.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Church’s Chicken is ready for a comeback.
CEO Joe Christina recently sat down with Business Insider to discuss the state of fried chicken in 2019. Christina took the reigns at Church’s — and at its international sister brand Texas Chicken — in late 2016.
Soon after, the company launched a turnaround plan as Church’s struggled to attract customers.
"We can’t just sit on our history and our heritage, we have to learn how to maximize the taste, flavor, the freshness of our product in a different way," Christina told Business Insider.
Today, Church’s is making a major delivery push and focusing on mobile ordering. The company is revamping the restaurant experience with redesigned locations, new employee uniforms, and operation tweaks to ensure speedier service and hotter food.
Here is how Church’s is trying to draw customers — both new and lapsed — to the chain.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Joe Christina: I started in this position in late 2016. We put together a three-year strategic plan around what the brand needed. Certainly in late ’16 and ’17 it was all about getting the operations to a better place, improving our image domestically. In 2018, it was really around getting the brand awareness going and kind of redefining value for the brand — and not just about prices, but about that abundance of food for a great price.
In 2019 it was all about the launch of our new global brand positioning, both in our international Texas restaurants, as well as our domestic Church’s restaurant. That’s what we’re excited about. And whether you’re talking about the international growth or the domestic growth, it’s a good time at Church’s right now.
Kate Taylor: Do you think that people’s perception of Church’s has changed since early 2016?
Christina: Well, yeah. The history and heritage of Church’s is so strong. We have some of the most loyal guests in the US. We employ a lot of our guests. We had that history and heritage, but what we were missing was bringing in new guests. That’s what part of the brand positioning was all about: How do we grow our awareness? How do we grow our consumer base? And what are the plans to do that?
It’s not just about price, it’s about that abundance of great food that you’ve grown to love, giving you more choices of really great sides and limited-time offer products. When we started to do that in the mid-part of 2017, we saw a shift of, not only did our guests like the abundance of food that they were getting compared to our competition, but also they saw us in a little different light.
We’re a little more than 40% done with our domestic re-image of our restaurants. So, customers saw a little difference on the look of the restaurant and then when they got inside, through the improvements in operations, they saw hotter food, friendlier staff, quicker speed of service. Our guests are certainly more satisfied with what they get at the restaurant, but we were also able to attract some new guests. When they saw that change, they come back more often.
‘A tale of two guests’
Taylor: Who are you targeting for new customers?
Christina: On the domestic business it’s a tale of two guests. We have that individual guest, and then we have that family business.
Our individual guest is certainly that person that’s looking for great food at a great value. They probably visit us multiple times a month. It’s heavily male.
It’s about a 50/50 split between lunch and dinner in our business, and when you get into that family business, now all of a sudden, it’s the mom that’s trying to have that meal replacement at home for their family because they’re working all day. We target those groups a little differently. When we bring in limited-time offers around our tender strips and other spicy foods, that’s when we attract the younger consumer that may have not tried Church’s ever or in a long time.
Taylor: Who are these new customers?
Christina: We’re seeing our loyal guests come back more often, but we are seeing a little skewing towards a younger consumer. And the part where we’ve really attracted that younger consumer into our restaurants is through our work around digital marketing and really diving into finding ways to talk to our guests through Facebook, through Instagram, and certainly through our email programs out to them.
Also third-party home delivery — we dove into that in early 2018, with a test in our Miami restaurants. And to-date we have almost 700 restaurants that are on delivery on the domestic business. We know that’s attracting that consumer that wants something brought to them — a variety of foods — and we know it’s a new guest and a younger guest because they’re ordering. We have found our delivery sales take an awful lot more tender strips than we sell at the restaurant level.
Deals and the ‘best fried chicken in the country’
Taylor: Going back to the idea of value, what message are you trying to get out to customers that you guys can offer something in terms of value proposition that the competition isn’t offering? What sets you guys apart?
Christina: We know we have the best fried chicken in the country. There’s no doubt, our fried chicken and our honey butter biscuit tenders are best in class. And so the history of Church’s has always been: get pieces of chicken for a low price. When we started to bundle meals together and family meals together, that’s where we saw that value come out.
When we were able to give more choices than our competition to our guests … when you layer in our seven or eight amazing sides at no additional charge to that bundle, that’s when we saw value take off. Our guests were able to pick their chicken protein type and then pick the great variety of sides and then add a drink. That’s where we saw the value position really take off domestically. That abundance of food, but also variety.
You can have great chicken, but if you don’t have variety, that guest is not going to visit you as often as you’d like to.
Taylor: How did Church’s get to a place where it did need to make these changes and improvements? How were you able to kind of pinpoint exactly what you needed to change?
Christina: It was a two-pronged approach. We knew we were a big part of our guests’ lives. I mean, when you’re around for 66 and a half, 67 years, you’re part of a lot of generations — of families and employees and our franchisees. We knew we had opportunities to grow that brand and bring in new guests, build restaurants in places where we were not around the world. We can’t just sit on our history and our heritage, we have to learn how to maximize the taste, flavor, the freshness of our product in a different way.
We started to do some research around the world about what our guests were asking for, what they wanted, and what they recognize us for. It always came back to the food. We knew that we couldn’t just sit on the food, we had to get a better voice. We had to improve our awareness. We had to get our reach out to our potential guests even more.
It started internationally with our sister brand of Texas, because the Texas brand was always just a copy of the US. It’s a newer brand in many, many countries and it didn’t have an identity to itself. We realized that we had to do some work on the international business. That research fed into the US business where we had to look at, "Okay, we can’t just rely on our food. What do we need to do?" Our voice to the market, our advertising, our tagline, our uniforms. Through all the research, we found that some tweaks on a domestic business were needed and the international business — specifically the Texas business — was going to be a big growth engine for us in the future. We needed to make sure we gave it its identity.
Taking Texas around the world
Taylor: How is the Texas brand different from the US brand and how do you balance those two?
Christina: Our first market for the Texas brand was in the ’80s in Indonesia. Church’s in the US is named after our founder, George W. Church. I think back then they made the right decision that that wasn’t as recognizable as the Texas brand. Everybody in the world knows about Texas.
Texas is a different feel, a different menu, much more reliant on spice and flavor profiles of that country, much more reliant on limited-time offers. We launched a whole new brand positioning late last fall. This year, we have new restaurant images, new logo, new uniforms, new menu.
We always have our bone-in chicken and our tender strips as our base, but we use our limited-time-offer products to really help different countries. The spice level in the Middle East is different than it is in Thailand, different than it is in Mexico.
Taylor: Would there ever be a case in which Texas would become a brand that exists in the US alongside Church’s?
Christina: That’s certainly not in the near future. Where I think the Texas brand will begin to bleed into the domestic business in the future is certainly around limited-time-offer products, as we see what works around the world and bring that back into the US. I don’t think that we’ll be Texas Chicken in the US anytime in the near future.
Taylor: What are some things that consumers are looking for in 2019 that is different than what they were looking for 10 years ago? What trends have changed?
Christina: Certainly the need for variety and the need for "deliver my food in a way that I want it." Ten years ago, even five years ago, third-party delivery didn’t even exist. For me, that’s the biggest change. Many families are either eating out or bringing food back to their homes. That third-party delivery is, for us, going to be a big part of our planning in 2019 on how we maximize those sales and make sure that that guest experience is just as good as if they picked it up at a restaurant.
The rise of delivery
Taylor: How big of a portion of the business do you see delivery becoming for Church’s in the US?
Christina: I think a healthy piece of it will be somewhere between five and 10% of our restaurant business. We’re not quite there yet, but with each month and each restaurant that we add on, we see that sales growth. Church’s heritage really started as Church’s to-go, so many of our guests take their food home anyways. They come through the drive-thru or they come in the restaurant, they take it home. Now we add that convenience that you don’t have to come to the restaurant.
One of our other big initiatives that we will be adding and testing this year is order-ahead and pay-ahead, where you can order the food ahead, you can pick it up at the restaurant, or you can choose to have it delivered. We’ll be rolling that out in our company restaurants as a test this summer. We think that’s going to be a big part of our back half of 2019 and into ’20, as far as the ability to drive sales and satisfy that guest.
Taylor: When you’re thinking about tech investments, where do you guys want to focus?
Christina: Everybody has an app on their phone to do whatever that they want to do. Whether they’re going to UberEats, Grubhub, or to our website, we want to make sure that they have the choice to do and get our food how they want to.
Technology in the restaurant is something that you have to keep investing in. In 2017 we saw that we had an opportunity with our drive-thru experience for our guests. We always got friendly marks on our service, but we weren’t quite quick enough, so we invested in drive-thru technology that allows us to do the diagnostic of where the opportunity is in the restaurant. We’ve seen great improvements in our drive-thru experience for our guests.
The next big investment for us is probably going to have to be in our point-of-sales pieces, as we layer in third-party delivery, order-ahead and pay-ahead, being able to read the data of our limited-time offers quickly and more effectively so we can make course corrections. That’s probably our next big investment on a domestic business.
We have a really good relationship with our franchisees. We have a Franchise Association Board of Directors we work with, as well as an Excellence Advisory Council made up of franchisees, and we talk six months in advance with them on where the business needs to go.
Taylor: Do you think that fried chicken is better suited for delivery then some other categories?
Christina: 100%. I think our food travels well. It’s been traveling well for years. When you run 55% drive-thru or 60% drive-thru as a percentage of sales, and then you have a takeout business on the inside also, our food has been traveling anyway. One of the best things for ours is that the fried chicken and our sides stay hot for a long time.
We did some changes to the packaging, gave it a little more room so things have the ability to not be damaged during delivery. We also put together a robust training program going forward. So, not only do our products deliver well, but we put in best-in-class delivery procedures in our restaurants.
With delivery, you lose that customer touch with the restaurant, and you’re relying on those third parties. So we built great relationships with our vendors and put the procedures in place in a restaurant to maximize product hotness, order accuracy, and making sure every once in a while we put a little prize in the bag to let the guests know how much we appreciate them ordering from us.
The challenges of a modern chicken chain
Taylor: What are the biggest challenges facing the restaurant industry in 2019?
Christina: I think it’s the employee base. That is our biggest challenge. We have very low turnover, especially when we invest in the restaurants. Throughout my career I’ve always seen when you invest in a restaurant, your employees feel like you’re investing in them, which you are. And so when our franchisee or even our company restaurants, when we re-image restaurants, when we roll out new uniforms, when we roll out easier packaging to handle, when we roll out limited-time offers that aren’t difficult to produce in the back of the restaurant, those employees feel like you’re investing in them.
Turnover at the Church’s brand isn’t what it used to be — it’s much better. If you don’t treat an employee well, they [will] potentially go right down the street and get a different job. The thing that I think of mostly is, "Are we treating our employees as well as we can so that we can keep them?" Because when you have long-term employees in your restaurant, it takes away those tough first couple of days and allows the operations to certainly flourish throughout the day.
Taylor: Have there been any concrete steps you guys have taken to try and make sure that employees do feel like they’re taken care of and to reduce turnover?
Christina: I think the investment in technology helps our employees understand what they need to work on and that there are tools in place to help them with it. But we’ve looked at a variety of different ways, not only our new uniforms that we’ll be rolling out in the restaurants, but also our HR practices in the restaurants on how we communicate to those employees, the managers.
I think it’s a combination of an investment in the restaurant with some of the best training out there in the restaurant business on how to keep those employees engaged, happy, and employed.
Taylor: I know Chick-fil-A has been making a lot of headlines for growth recently. When you’re thinking about competitors in the chicken-chain industry, what are the big-picture trends you’re seeing? How do you think that you guys are stacking up against the competition?
Christina: The trends we’ve seen is around those limited-time offers and giving a variety of choices. We believe that when we put one of our new restaurants up against anybody, our menu can go up against anybody. I believe that Church’s stacks up very well.
We’ve made the changes in the last two years to make sure that when we’re straight up against one of those other bigger brands, that we stack up well. We’re not the biggest brand, neither domestically nor internationally, but I tell ya, I’ll put my team and my group of franchisees up against any brand. The future’s really bright for both Church’s and the Texas brand in the coming years.
Taylor: What is the one message you want to get out there about Church’s right now?
Christina: I really want people to know that Church’s really believes in the heritage of the brand and we’re not walking away from that. But, we want you to come in and really try the Church’s brands, maybe for the first time in awhile — the friendliness, the food quality, and the variety is there. And it’s what you want when you’re looking for a meal.
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