Owner Seth Champion helps waitress Sarah Austin put plates together as he works the lunch crowd at Champy's, their restaurant located on M.L. King Boulevard that specializes in fried chicken. Staff Photo by John Rawlston/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Todd Putnam gave Seth Champion the nickname “Champy” when the two played little league baseball together in the Mississippi Delta.
Now it’s payback time for Champion, founder of the popular Champy’s restaurant on M.L. King Boulevard.
Champion has decided on Daphne, Ala., as the spot for Champy’s first expansion since he opened the restaurant in mid-2009. And he’s decided that Putnam, his lifelong friend, is the man for the job.
The two have known each other since they were 11 years old in Indianola, Miss., Putnam said.
“My wife has been wanting to do it for the longest time, and I've always been opposed to it,” Putnam said. But when the pair found a spot in Daphne, Putnam said, “we thought would be good and ran with it.”
The restaurant will open in early May, and will be the first of 25 that Champion said he intends to open over the next decade.
“We’re primarily focused on owner-operator partnerships,” Crissy Champion said. “You have to have drive in the restaurant business or you won’t be successful.”
Seth Champion doesn’t like to use the term “franchise,” a word that brings to mind fast-food restaurants and auto dealerships.
Instead, he said, it’s about keeping the feel of the restaurant intact and working with strong partners — partners who have between $140,000 and $170,000 to invest.
Erecting 25 Champy’s restaurants is going to take a lot of corrugated metal.
To decorate the stores, the Champions will start by taking a road trip down to the Mississippi Delta.
“We go down to Mississippi with a trailer and —” he said.
“— And a crowbar,” his wife finished for him.
It’s a combination of “stuff we pick up off the side of the road,” and items from goodwill and thrift stores, Seth Champion said.
As a result, “each Champy’s is going to have its own individual atmosphere,” though all will have rusted trim, old mementos and Christmas lights, he said.
Each location, starting with Putnam’s, will employ about 25 people, and their training will be in Chattanooga.
Instead of flashy grand openings, “we’ll just softly open the doors and start greeting people,” Crissy said.
Champion and his wife originally took an “all or nothing approach” to the Chattanooga store, an approach he expects to see in all future Champey’s licensees.
“Success comes with selecting the people to work for you that are ambitions, that have drive,” Champion said. “You kind of have to be all-in.”
Now that he’s in full-on expansion mode, he’s also looking to expand in the area.
“There’s really no other place you can take your business partners during the day, and come back and watch a game at night,” Crissy Champion said.
Her husband calls his customer base the “from Yale to jail” crowd, because of the combination of hungry college kids and adults in search of a unique eatery.
Seth Champion wants to hit all the Southeastern Conference college campuses with his first wave of openings, and from there it’s anybody’s game, he said.
Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...