Spending time behind the plate, Seth Champion could see the whole field, position his team and work with his pitching staff to make the right pitches.
Success took him to the Division level at the University of New Orleans and he used the leadership skills from the baseball diamond to make the right calls in the restaurant industry. First with a Lenny’s Sub franchise and later with his own formation of Champy’s World Famous Chicken in the Chattanooga, Tennessee area.
“I believe just being competitive and an athlete in general transfers over to life and business,” Champion said. “It definitely helps in running and orchestrating a restaurant: behind the plate you see it all.”
It helped that Champion also learned his way around a chicken fryer as a kid in Indianola at his family’s restaurant. His love for Delta flavors including hot tamales and original salads helped him create a one of a kind eating establishment.
“I worked for them (Lenny’s) 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.”
That job kept him on the road before he decided to cash in all he had and own a Lenny’s of his own.
The plan was to spend more time with his growing family (three sons) and his wife.
With credit cards and cash from his 401K, Champion scraped enough together to buy the restaurant. He wanted to work it into a successful franchise, get his money back out of it and pursue his dream – his own concept restaurant.
The plan came together and he landed in a food city – Chattanooga – where the home of Krystal Burger and Moon Pies welcomed him in, and in 2009, Champy’s World Famous Fried Chicken was born.
The early goings weren’t so easy though and his dream was struggling to stay open. But a local newspaper brought his story to light and customers came to check out the Delta flavors he had to offer.
Other publications got hungry and checked out Champion’s spin on fried chicken and before too long articles in Garden and Gun Magazine and even Southern Living put together big spreads on it all.
Even MSNBC showed up 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 up in Daphne (Alabama.)’”
More friends wanted in on the chicken business and Champion put the success formula into licensing other locations from Chattanooga and into Alabama for eight total locations.
“We’ve got a location opening up in Madison, Alabama in June,” he said. “I run two locations day-to-day and we have six licensed locations.”
But all along, he’s had his eye and heart on getting back to the Magnolia State with his successful venture but he just hasn’t found the right combination yet.
“We’re actively looking around the Gluckstadt/Ridgeland area. We have to get Madison open first and then look back into it. I noticed the (Facebook) comments and folks saying, ‘when are you bringing it to Madison, Mississippi?’ Cleveland with Delta State would be a great opportunity. But I’ve got to get the boxes checked on this one first. 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.”
Should he get the call to get back to the Delta with a Champy’s World Famous Fried Chicken, it might be under his own ownership and not a licensed store.
“I’d love to get back to the Delta. I miss Mississippi every day,” Champion said. “I love Mississippi. I’m a Mississippian in Tennessee. The heartstrings are pulling hard.”
The former catcher is sticking to the basics and “dancing with the one that brought you” as he’s deep into crawfish season and always has his own version of the Delta Hot Tamale replete with a secret Delta area juke joint recipe.
“Our hand rolled hot tamales is a signature item,” he said. “We built a facility to manufacture all of our tamales and distribute them. I (also) use Mississippi Delta farm raised catfish.”
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. He even grows some of his ingredients himself on land he owns in Lexington, Mississippi.
“All of our chicken has a two-day kill date. If it was killed yesterday, we’re marinating it today. The freshest product that you can find,” he said. “We grow tomatoes that we use in our fried green tomatoes and the bell peppers we use in our beans.”
With old school cooking values, Champion marinates the chicken 24 hours and microwaves are unwelcome. It’s all cooked to order as the Delta is known for “good food takes time to cook.” But that gives customers time to relax and take in the décor.
“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, “Fortys & 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 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 dressings 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 - 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, the former catcher is at home in the kitchen 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, www.champyschicken.com.