Birmingham, Alabama–based Jack’s Family Restaurants celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, capping a half century in which it became the first fast food chain in Alabama—and one of the first in the nation.
The anniversary marks a significant milestone for a company that has changed hands several times over the years and stuck to a tried-and-true menu of mostly burgers, fries, and shakes.
Benny LaRussa, owner and chairman of the board of Jack’s, says founder Jack Caddell started the company after seeing the success of other upstart fast feeders, like the operation founded by the McDonald brothers.
LaRussa, a former Jack’s franchisee who bought the company in 1989, says Jack’s has been committed to steady growth since 1960, growth that’s founded on committed people who work to entrench themselves in the community they are in.
“We won’t open a store unless we have a trained manager team and crew team ready to run it,” LaRussa says. “The buildings don’t do business—it’s the people that do the business.”
Employees are encouraged to familiarize themselves with regular consumers, LaRussa says, which packs the house for breakfast and keeps many coming back for lunch and dinner.
“It’s about being able to teach your people to find out their customers’ names, call them by name—that ties you back in to that community,” he says.
Jack’s now has 108 stores open in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Mississippi, with 11 more on the way.
Just 108 stores in 50 years—including 45 in the last nine years—is evidence that the chain has grown slowly. But the slow growth is attributed to the fact that a new Jack’s will only open if cash flow permits, and it’s been that way since LaRussa bought the company with a $2 million loan.
“This is how we have grown the company, so that when you get into these economic times like you are right now, you’re not dependent on a bank or anybody else,” LaRussa says. “Our people are proud of that, because they know that you’re secure in their livelihood, and the way the company’s going.”
LaRussa says Jack’s employees make sure the company is secure, too, motivated not just by company gain, but by the annual rewards corporate bestows. LaRussa says Jack’s treats each store manager and their spouse to a trip to Destin, Florida, every year—company success permitting.
“This is a real motivator for the next year, because they know if we’re not successful in what we’re doing, we can’t take them on these trips,” LaRussa says. “That’s our way of rewarding them, beside bonuses, of the hard work that they’ve done. That’s also the key to success—recognizing how hard our people work.”
In these changing quick-service times, as nutrition and technology like social media are shaping the industry, LaRussa says Jack’s is staying apprised of what its evolving customer base is asking for.
But even though the chain has added menu items like chicken tenders and salads over the years, LaRussa says the obesity debate and the push for fast food to provide healthier offerings is something Jack’s is, at the moment at least, staying out of.
“We have to be sensitive to what our customers want,” he says. “When we advertise something that’s healthy and good for you, our sales are maybe 15 percent of what a normal ad campaign would be.”
By Sam Oches