Joe Christina, CEO of Atlanta-based Church’s Chicken, said the quick-service chain has made inroads over the past year by offering value in a competitive market.
Christina, who succeeded Jim Hyatt as CEO last November, recently met with 800 franchisees, management personnel and field team leaders at parent company Cajun Operating Co.’s annual leadership meeting in Dallas.
Prior to succeeding Hyatt, Christina served as Church’s Chicken executive vice president of U.S. operations since 2013. Church’s Chicken and Texas Chicken, its brand abroad, have more than 1,500 locations in 27 countries.
Christina spoke with Nation’s Restaurant News about the challenges and opportunities in the competitive environment.
How is Church’s Chicken performing this year?
The progress we are making this year is the best in the last five years or so. We’re beginning to see sales go in the right direction. Certainly the competitive environment out there has been very, very difficult this year. We are no longer just fighting our competitors in the chicken category. Being a value-oriented company for the last 65 years, when others start playing in your venue it makes it much more difficult. This year our biggest challenge has been around burgers and supermarkets biting into our value space. We’ve seen some progress in the last six months.
What traffic trends are you seeing?
Customers are seeing changes and visiting us more often. We’re beginning to get the traffic and sales back.
How do you define the competition?
It’s a battle of the street corners. You’ve got win the battle with the competition across the street, whether that’s value, speed of service, quality of food or investing in the exterior of the building.
What has helped the Church’s brand?
We’ve always been a value-oriented company. … What our guests came to us for was great chicken and the value that came along with it. What we have been working very hard on is not only product innovation in order to give our guests a few more choices besides bone-in chicken, but also we’re moving operations in the right direction. For the last year, we’ve had a drive-thru initiative to speed up friendly service in our drive-thrus. Over 50 percent of our business comes through the drive-thrus.
How have you improved drive-thru times?
First, we had to get caught up. We didn’t have the technology in most of our restaurants. Our company restaurants had the technology in timers. Our franchise restaurants didn’t have that technology. Two years ago we started testing a few different timers to find a cost-effective way to get them into restaurants. It also gives restaurants the ability to pinpoint exactly where the [improvement] opportunity is, whether it’s having guests wait too long at the menu board or at the delivery window or a production or labor problem.
What has been the result?
Our speed of service standard is three minutes and 30 seconds from start to finish. A majority of our restaurants were much more than that. When we put in the technology and combined it with a training program for friendly speed of service, we’ve seen our through-put increase significantly. Drive-thru speed is close to the standard in all our restaurants.
What technology did you find most helpful?
We went with a cloud-based timer company, so a franchisee or restaurant leader is able to see the speed in the restaurants as it is going on. It allows us to analyze where the opportunities are. We pinpointed training around that. We can make sure production in the restaurant matches the sales we are predicting.
What kind of value message is Church’s offering?
We are a dinner-oriented business. We have been concentrating on giving a great individual offer, which started this month with the $5 Real Big Deal. The differentiator there is they get to pick what kind of chicken, what kind of sides versus the competition. On the family end of the business, we’ve had a compelling family offer.
Has any special value offer been especially helpful in increasing sales?
A big success story in the last eight months has been around our Wednesday all-day special, which is eight pieces of chicken for $5.99. It allows our guests to get a full meal for their family at a real good price. When you team that up with sides and honey-butter biscuits, it’s a great value.
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