Jack Pirtle’s Chicken
Made in Memphis
By Jim Walker (with assistance from Marcy Siebert)
Deliciously on the menu in Memphis for 60 years, and with eight, bright blue and yellow, immediately recognizable restaurants around town, Jack Pirtle’s Chicken has become a celebrated symbol of both the city’s cuisine and its panorama. And, as you can imagine, there’s a lot of history behind those six decades of success. We’ll offer just a little bit of that here, along with a few thoughts from Tawanda Pirtle. She and her husband, Cordell Pirtle (Jack’s son), are the current owners/operators of this truly made-in-Memphis business.
With previous restaurant experience under his belt, Jack Pirtle opened his first chicken restaurant in Memphis in 1957, and the menu has always emphasized tasty fried chicken and down-home fixin’s at family-affordable prices. There are also burgers, hot dogs, sausages and sandwiches, three kinds of tea, and even hot peppers. But chicken is the hallmark...
“And, of course our Original Steak Sandwich, that makes everyone’s mouth water when they talk about it,” Tawanda noted.
“Honestly, we’ve had basically the same menu all these years, with the exception that we added hot wings a few years ago,” Tawanda said. “As the old saying goes, if it’s not broken, why change it? We serve good Southern food and there is only one way to fix it ... and for us it’s Jack Pirtle's way.”
The restaurants include two dine-in/drive-in and six drive-in/or take-out, but Jack Pirtle’s caters, too. Tawanda said there are really no limits on that. “If we can do it, it’s always our pleasure. Most of our orders are pickup at one of the eight stores, but we can deliver, setup and serve if needed.”
Tawanda explained that Jack Pirtle was one of the first franchise owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “He signed his contract directly with Colonel Sanders right here in Memphis,” she said. “And, at that time, the name was ‘Jack Pirtle's featuring Kentucky Fried Chicken.’ He opened his first chicken store in 1957, which is still open today on South Bellevue.”
Cordell Pirtle took over the business in 1979, when Jack retired. But Tawanda said he started with the business in 1957, at the very beginning. “He was 13 years old. He worked alongside his parents and when he graduated from Central in 1962, he took over the management of Jack Pirtle's Highland Store. He stayed in that position until he took over the company in 1979,” she said.
Tawanda went on to say, “Cordell and I met on Friday, March 13, 1992. We dated for 13 years. On March 13, 2005 he proposed and we married on May 27, 2005. I started working directly with the business in 2007 and took over the day-to-day management in April of 2008.”
She added that, “In the beginning, Mr. and Mrs. Jack Pirtle had several family members working at the stores – bothers, sisters, sister-in-laws, etc. And, our daughter, Penny Pirtle Robertson, worked for the company. She is now disabled due to fighting a long battle with cancer.”
Tawanda said they have many devoted, longtime employees. “At the present time, our oldest is Ms. Shirley Benson, manager at our Bellevue Store. Shirley was hired by Mr. Jack in December 1970, when she was a young girl. Throughout the years many of her family members have worked for us and still work for us today.”
When asked how long they might continue to run the business, Tawanda said, “At the present time, our plans are to continue doing what we both love to do, in the place that we love – Memphis. We are very fortunate to have my sister, Lorie Hudson, as our general manager. She handles all operations of the business and is very capable of carrying forward the success of Jack Pirtle's Chicken ... along with our four children, 11 grandchildren, soon to be seven great grandchildren, and then add in the in-laws.”
Pirtle’s involvement with people goes beyond its staff and customers. For example, Cordell received the 2014 Restaurateur of the Year award from the Memphis Restaurant Association.
“We have lived Downtown for many years and we work hard trying to give love back and pay it forward,” Tawanda said. “We are active in too many programs to list, but our life goal is to just be happy, laugh a lot, show everyone love and be able to continue to live in the city we love.”
“We feel very blessed to be able to do the things we do for our community, and it’s all because we have wonderful, devoted employees and have had the support of all the great folks in Memphis and the surrounding area since the beginning,” Tawanda said. “Jack Pirtle's Chicken will be celebrating its 60th year on Feb. 14, 2017, and still serves the original recipes that were created by Mr. and Mrs. Jack Pirtle after leaving Kentucky Fried Chicken in the ’60s.”
Jack Pirtle’s Chicken restaurants are located at: 1217 S. Bellevue Blvd., 4349 Elvis Presley Blvd., 811 S. Highland St., 2484 Jackson Ave., 3571 Lamar Ave., 2520 Mt. Moriah Rd., 1370 Poplar Ave., and 890 Thomas St. For more information and for the full and fascinating story of Jack Pirtle and his restaurants, visit the company website at www.jackpirtleschicken.com.