Just a few years ago, John Buttolph was a lawyer in California with no food or restaurant experience. Today, he’s the CEO of Mrs. Winner’s Chicken & Biscuits. In 2010, the southeastern chain known for authentic southern fried chicken, made-from-scratch biscuits and hot frosted cinnamon swirls, went bankrupt and closed all company-owned stores. Recognizing the brand’s potential, Buttolph acquired rights to the company in 2012. Since then, he has worked to improve the company’s business model and plans to have 100 new restaurants open within the next five years through franchising. Six new restaurants are under construction in Atlanta. The chain recently partnered with franchise veteran Mike Reynolds to help grow and attract new multi-unit franchisees. Franchised Mrs. Winner’s locations are available through property conversions or new construction with the total investment ranging from $200,000 to $500,000.
You had a well-established career in law in California and now live in Minnesota- what motivated you to want to get involved in resurrecting Mrs. Winner’s, a southeastern brand?
I recognized that for reasons beyond my understanding, Mrs. Winner’s was beloved throughout the southeast. My wife and I had been considering how to write the next chapter of our lives, and in Mrs. Winner’s we saw a fantastic opportunity to enter a new and interesting form of business.
How exactly did it come about?
After several years spent providing legal services to Mrs. Winner’s parent company, I was convinced that in the right hands the brand retained considerable value despite the financial missteps of previous owners. When the opportunity to acquire Mrs. Winner’s presented itself, it seemed to me as if I were being entrusted with a handful of seed corn. So I determined to plant it in good ground and reap the harvest. That’s exactly how it came about. I glimpsed something unique about the brand and the reasons behind the passion that Mrs. Winner’s elicits from its customers.
What about the brand most appeals to you?
Mrs. Winner’s is a proven concept with a passionate customer base.
What have you learned about the restaurant industry in the process?
Our customers tell us that service and store cleanliness rank as highly as value and food quality. Customers are willing to pay a little more to support a higher quality operation.
What do you look for in a possible franchisee relationship?
A passion for the brand, a realistic appreciation of the benefits and challenges of owning your own business and a laser focus on the customer experience.
What advice do you pass along when you do meet franchisees?
Mrs. Winner’s is a proven brand concept with a passionate customer base, and that means you have a fantastic opportunity ahead of you. We will support you from day one, but never lose sight of the fact that your success with this business depends on your efforts, and your commitment to inspire and lead your team with integrity and respect.
Do you see Mrs. Winner’s moving out of the southeast concentration to become more of a national brand?
Because our food product tests so strongly against our national competitors, we are in the early stages of planning to expand into the southwest and urban north and Midwest.
What are your favorite menu items?
My personal favorites are the chicken and pork biscuits, the cinnamon swirl, the sweet tea and the tenders.
Why is the website lovemrswinners.com?
Because we think our customers really do love Mrs. Winner’s whole vibe – the food, the service, the very mention of “Mrs. Winner’s” brings a nostalgic sigh and smile.
The words “home” and “family” are used throughout the site. Why are those words important to the brand and what other words/terms would you say are also important to Mrs. Winner’s?
Because home and family are important to me, they speak to the qualities we want our customers to experience and associate with Mrs. Winner’s. Others are “respect” and “integrity.”
What response do you get when you interact with customers?
Almost every day I hear some kind of love from our customers, “I love Mrs. Winner’s chicken!” or “I would do just about anything for a Mrs. Winner’s cinnamon roll right now!” or “When is Mrs. Winner’s coming back to my hometown?”