Phrases like “primed for success,” and “poised to make some noise,” don’t exactly fit a 65-year-old brand. But Church’s Chicken has been a quiet giant of sorts in the quick-service industry in recent years. This is especially true in the chicken category, a booming sector home to the industry's highest average unit volume restaurant (Chick-fil-A at $4.4 million).
These realties were on Joseph Christina’s mind as he stepped into the CEO role in November. Christina was Church’s EVP of U.S. operations since 2013, overseeing more than 1,150 units in 29 states. Previously, he served as SVP of Burger King.
His goal: Turn Church’s into the global franchisor of choice, as the company puts it.
“Once you throw that out there, all the other things that happen in your business have to align with that vision,” Christina says. “That really was the birth of the changes that have followed.”
Church’s 65th anniversary has turned out to be an eventful year so far, to say the least. Internally, the brand reshaped itself in an effort to bolster engagement across all levels—in the company’s support center, in the field, in its restaurants, and with franchisees, domestically and abroad with the Texas Chicken brand.
Here’s a rundown:
Craig Prusher, Church’s SVP, general counsel, and secretary, and a member of the company since 2012, was promoted to EVP, chief legal officer, and secretary.
Pete Servold, a former McDonald’s exec who spent more than 30 years with the fast food chain, stepped into Christina’s old role as EVP of U.S. operations. He was also Church’s VP of operations from 2010–2014. In July, Servold’s role expanded to include a newly established domestic development team. This fresh division includes a VP of domestic franchise development to go along with a director of construction, director of new business, and director of real estate.
David Knies assumed that role as VP of franchise development to oversee those new director roles.
At the same time, it was announced Tony Moralejo, Church’s former global chief development officer, would now manage all aspects of the international business for Church’s and Texas Chicken as EVP, international business, leading overseas franchise development and operations.
Another new position, VP of brand strategy and activation, was filled by Jennifer Chasteen, who previously served as director of new product development and senior director of brand and product strategy.
Director of media and digital Laura Reese was promoted to senior director of media, digital, and public relations, and Amanda Robbins moved into a position to supervise field marketing efforts as director of field marketing.
Senior director of purchasing Chris Ward was also promoted to VP of Supply Chain.
Needless to say, Church’s restructuring process was far from nominal.
One of the biggest changes took place in February, when former Popeyes CMO Hector Munoz joined Church’s—the brand he started with 25 years earlier—to head up marketing efforts.
Like Christina, Munoz believed Church’s, even for a legacy brand, had plenty of runway to attend to.
“We’re a brand that’s been a little quiet over the last few years but we’re roaring to go and it’s going to be an exciting ride for everybody involved,” he says. “This is a great brand with a lot of upside.”
When Munoz arrived, he set three priorities. The first was to get to know franchisees on an intimate level. He toured restaurants and markets, “learning from them so I could position myself to ultimately lead them,” Munoz says.
Next was the aforementioned restructuring of Church’s marketing team. Lastly, he embarked on a four-month journey to find a new advertising agency of record to tell Church’s story.
The team linked with J. Walter Thompson out of Atlanta. Munoz and Christina both alluded to a key factor that drew the organizations together: The agency made Church’s executive team feel great about Church’s.
“They embraced our brand. They embraced our customers versus running away or trying to come up with things that we aren’t,” Munoz says. “They said, ‘Listen, you guys are a great, iconic brand. You guys are a community brand. You have a lot of richness. You have a lot of assets, a lot of equity in the brand. We need to embrace it. And it’s our turn now to really start educating and letting people know what we stand for.”
Munoz couldn't share exactly what was coming from the collaboration, only that these new campaigns will start rolling out in the near future.
For Christina, the conversation always turns back to engagement. The plan is to ensure Church’s and its franchisees are on the same page. “We need to take care of our guest and our guest’s needs,” he says. “That’s the most important thing. But it really has a lot of arms to it.”
It extends from how Church’s speaks to its guests in the restaurant to how it communicates within the system. This is all driven from internal feedback as well, Christina says.
He gives an example: While the company’s international business has plenty of room to grow, the company didn’t dedicate sufficient resources in the past. The new hires changed that.
“That came from our franchisees who were saying we want to grow this brand but we need a little bit more attention, a little more help doing it. I think that’s the way we’re trying to do business around here,” he says. “When our guests tell us there are opportunities in the restaurant, we put plans in place and put programs in place to drive those improvements, and when our franchisees tell us they need more support we try to make adjustments to give that support to them.”
A large part of this plan was to bring in what Christina calls “subject matter experts,” to make sure Church’s is conveying its strengths effectively. Munoz was a part of Popeyes since 2011, a run of more than 25 consecutive quarters of same-store sales growth.
Christina says Church’s has the product and fanbase to compete with the chicken elite. It just lacked in exposure.
“We were always leaders in the value category,” he says. “But as others began to get into the value sector, whether its other chicken brands, burger brands, or supermarkets, we’ve had to make sure that we had both the people and the processes in place to fight against those brands and make sure we keep our guests coming to us more often as well as attract new guests.”
“I’m very optimistic about the future of the Church’s and Texas Chicken brands,” he adds. “There’s no doubt that we have the best product and we need to catch up in the area of reimaging our restaurants and growing in markets where we feel guests want to come and eat our chicken. What we’ve done in the last eight months or so is that get ourselves all aligned, and I think that’s the important thing.”
Christina says Church’s in on a three-year strategic plan that’s focused on moving forward. He thinks the company can grow substantially in Asia, as well as enter new markets. And as the company strengthens, he says more franchisees, current and perspective, will want to invest in that growth—domestically and abroad.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Munoz says. “I’m really excited and motivated by what I’ve learned over the course of the past four months. We have a really passionate group of franchisees who are really looking for leadership for us. And that’s extremely motivating for me.”