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Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Champy's three-piece plate is seen on April 6.

Champy's owner Seth Champion opened the original store on M.L. King Boulevard during a recession in 2009, so expanding his operation in 2022 after two years of a pandemic and with rising costs is nothing new for him.

Coming out of the pandemic, he is preparing to open his 10th store in Cleveland next spring and an 11th in Smyrna, Tennessee, in the coming year. Champion's goal is to have 15 stores eventually and then to "see where it goes from there."

"We are not backing down, and we are building," he said by phone on Wednesday morning.

Champion said he continues to grow the business because the demand is there from customers and because he feels an obligation to his staff to provide them opportunities to grow and develop. He said it is in large part because of his staff that Champy's World Famous Fried Chicken stores continue to do well despite costs having risen 36% since December.

He said items that require hands-on labor such as chicken tenders have seen the most dramatic increase in cost. A case of tenders has gone from $80 to $170, for example, he said, and those increases have been passed on to his customers.

"Fortunately, they understand. They don't like it, and neither do I, but you have to operate as a business to stay in business," he said.

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Staff Photo / Founder Seth Champion is seen at the Lee Highway location of Champy's Fried Chicken in 2016 in Chattanooga.

And, you have to stay out in front of those increases, he said.

"We have a price competitive product, but really it is the people that have allowed us to grow," he said. "We are small enough to maneuver and manage what we do."

He said many members of his staff come as freshmen in college and then after four years, they are looking at career options. Some want to stay in the food industry, and those move into management positions at new Champy's locations.

Aaron Murray, 26, is the chief operating officer and will be the manager at the new Cleveland store. He was hired about seven months ago by Champion, but his passion for Champy's goes back many years.

"I've been a huge fan for years," he said. "I eat, sleep and breathe Champy's. I had my 21st birthday party at Champy's. I have a passion for it."

Murray got his marketing degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and worked in that industry after school before Champion made him an offer that included growing with the company.

"That's exactly why I signed on," he said. "They are really invested in their people. You saw with the pandemic when they kept everybody on and gave money to people who needed it."

He said he has 100 or more applications for positions at the Cleveland store.

"It's because people hear from friends and family that Champy's is the place to be," Murray said. "We have a great time, and customers see that."

Champion said going forward, each new Champy's will be modeled after the East Ridge location. He said the size, layout and footprint have proven to work well, but he said the real key has been the split-line kitchen. Half is dedicated to the to-go and drive-through orders, and the other half focuses on dine-in customers.

When things are slow for either, staff can be shifted to the other side.

"It has worked really well," he said.

The Cleveland store on Ocoee Crossing will seat about 300 people in the 9,700-square-foot space and, unlike the East Ridge store, it will have a rooftop bar. Champion bought the 4-acre property and plans to use more than half for the store and will develop some other projects on the rest, he said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354. Follow him on Twitter @BarryJC.

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