Brimming with Delta Flavor
By Mark H. Stowers
Growing up in the Delta, Seth Champion was immersed in Delta flavor—hot tamales, fried chicken, original salads and much more. He learned the trade by working in his parents and grandparents’ restaurants, perfecting the skills needed to run the “back of a restaurant.” Later Champion would add business skills he attained in college to write the recipe for success for the “front of the house (restaurant)”—that would become Champy’s World Famous Chicken. The former Division 1 catcher for the University of New Orleans put those competitive skills to work learning the restaurant industry first as a cook, then as waiter in Memphis are eateries. After graduation he learned the ropes of the Lenny’s Sub Shop chain and eventually landed in East Tennessee as an owner.
“I worked for them for seven years and started as a sandwich maker/shift lead and worked my way to manager,” Champion said. “Eventually, I was area operations manager where I had 33 restaurants I was in charge of opening and I was in charge of new store development.”
After being on the road managing sub shops for those seven years, Champion decided to a Lenny’s of his own. He had a plan in place that would provide more family time for his young, growing family of a wife and two sons (now three—Joey-17 years old, Jack-11 years old, and Press who is two years old.
“I gathered up—I think I had about $7,000 and had to get $80,000 to buy the restaurant,” he said. “I cashed in 401Ks and credit cards—used everything I could to purchase my original Lenny’s.”
After pouring everything he had and didn’t have, his plan was to get it up and running and sell it for a profit, so he could do what he’s always wanted to do.
“I grew up in the Delta with the hot tamales and juke joints and fried chicken. I said, ‘When I get this thing up and running, I’m going to sell it and I’m going to do my own concept restaurant and bring the Mississippi Delta to Chattanooga.’”
The city that birthed the Krystal Burger and Moon Pies had plenty of room for Champion’s idea—Champy’s World Famous Fried Chicken. In June of 2009, the doors opened and nearly a year in, Champion’s dream was struggling to stay afloat financially. That’s when the local paper wrote a story entitled, “Recipes for Success” that told Champion’s Mississippi story and how he came to the area with a concept dream restaurant. Then the crowd started showing up hungry.
“We got some foot traffic and about two months later Garden and Gun (Magazine) came in and did a spread. Then two months later, Southern Living came and did a big spread,” Champion said.
The media coverage continued as MSNBC came in with Robin Mead and talked up his chicken listing it as a “Top 100 Places in the United States to Eat Like a Local.”
“That was a big shot in the arm once again,” he said. “And right after that, a buddy of mine from Indianola, Todd Putnam called and said, ‘hey, what do you have going on? I’m hearing good things. I want to open one in Daphne (Alabama.)”
As luck would have it, another friend called and wanted in on the licensing venture and opened a Champy’s in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. A Chattanooga friend came on board to open another one in Alabaster, Alabama. Now the fried chicken restaurant has seven locations scattered across three states with more in the works.
“I’d love to see one come down to Mississippi. We’re actively looking all over, and we’re contacted daily about ‘hot spots’. We want to grow it, but we very much want to stay cautious of our brand and our name, the quality of our food and service and the people to go along with our organization,” he said. “It’s growing and we’ve been approached to take it bigger but we’re going to keep it small and keep it organically grown.”
The combination of time tested family recipes and cooking ingenuity combined with fresh ingredients has truly made Champy’s World Famous Fried Chicken just that.
The chicken is marinated 24-hours before cooking and there’s no microwaves in the joint. Champion wants nothing to do with re-heating and everything is cooked to order so it takes a little time to get on the table but according to the Delta native, it’s worth the wait.
“When you order your chicken, you sit back and relax in a cool juke joint atmosphere while we cook it for you,” he said. “It’s that Mississippi state of mind. Good food takes time. That’s how we operate. We get you a Coke, Sprite, Sweet Tea or a 40-ounce beer.”
The beer and chicken has inspired a line of t-shirts “40s and Fowl.”
“We keep it simple and good. Everything we do is from scratch. Potatoes are peeled hourly for the mashed potatoes,” he said. “The baked beans are my grandmother’s and my mashed potatoes are my mother’s and the fried chicken is a little bit of everybody’s. We make about 2,000 dozen hot tamales a week. It’s a recipe I got from a friend of mine.”
The menu features fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, fried pickles, hot tamales, fried catfish, fried okra, slaw and homemade cakes and pies.
“We’re going to keep the menu where it’s at. We do it fresh and keep it simple,” he said. “That’s our model and that’s what we’re sticking with.”
Champy’s also caters events of all sorts and has won all sorts of awards from the city of Chattanooga, well known publications and more. Champion has licensed the restaurant not franchised it. Each one serves basically the same menu with tweaks for geographic favorites.
“Our Alabaster location does some shrimp po-boys. We do allow four minor changes for whatever region you’re in. We work on a recipe here in house and put it out,” he said. “These are ‘friend-chises so to speak. We do not franchise, we license it. They own them and we receive a small fee for the name. Franchising has a lot of teeth in it but I like to allow some creativity in my restaurants with limitation. I don’t like people to be stuck selling something that does not sell. You do see some variation in our restaurants.”
The award-winning chicken has paved the way for success for Champion to create more Champy’s locations he still craves a few Delta specialties that don’t grace his menu—yet.
“I’m a big fan of the Delta Salads but I tend to be the only one that can make one. The Lusco’s and Lillo’s dressing and Fratesi’s dressing—those are some of the biggest things I miss. And Indianola Pecans,” he said. “I just planted 100 Pecan Trees on our land back in Mississippi so maybe I can have some of my own one day. That’s one of the things I miss about Mississippi are the good salads.”
Champion owns both of the Chattanooga locations and is working on a third and the rest are licensed to friends. His two locations have 96 employees. His wife, Crissy, and his oldest son, Joey, work in the restaurant and Champion still finds time to work in the kitchen with the qualified folks he’s brought on board to run things.
“I still enjoy being back there cooking with them,” he said.
Still a Delta boy at heart, at home in the kitchen and spreading the flavor of the Delta to Chattanooga and beyond—Champy’s World Famous Fried Chicken. To learn more, check out their Facebook page and website, champyschicken.com.