Tastes Like Chicken
Stamped on the top every box of Jack Pirtle’s chicken are four words with an
exclamation mark.“It’s a Memphis Thing!” shouts from every lid that Jack Pirtle’s Chicken, its food, its historyand service are as Bluff City as it gets
Story by Doug Gillon | Photos by Madison Yen and Lee Otts
The Pirtle's Chicken dynasty began when founder Jack Pirtle had a son at 43 and began a brand new career so he could raise his family in one city. He used what little money he had from decades of factory work and bought a restaurant outside the Memphis Firestone plant that stayed open 24-hours a day to serve chicken to local factory workers.
That was 1945. Over the next decade, Jack enjoyed some moderate success in the restaurant business, opening five other restaurants in Memphis, but things really changed when he met Harland David Sanders.
That’s right: the black bowtie, white suit, portrayed by at least three different comedians recently, finger lickin’, goatee havin’, Colonel Sanders. Jack had a “bread man” who was a close relation of the Colonel, and arranged a meeting. The Colonel showed Jack his signature chicken frying process and the super-secret spices necessary for the KFC taste. Then something weird happened. Colonel Sanders took Jack Pirtle to Bismarck, North Dakota, to eat at a drive-thru before drive-thrus were a thing.
Jack was sold on the idea and, in 1957, opened the first Jack Pirtle’s on Bellevue: one of the first franchises of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and known as Jack Pirtle’s featuring Kentucky Fried Chicken for a decade.
That Bellevue store, which still sells chicken today, has been managed by the same woman, Miss Shirley, for more than four decades and looks like it was built by someone’s grandpa because it was. Jack put the thing up himself like a poultry-slinging Paul Bunyan. Then he built three more stores and made his son Cordell, at the tender age of 13, the manager of one of them.
Jack Pirtle relied on himself, but wanted to serve workers and be a part of his community. These themes are obvious in the modern Jack Pirtle’s run by Cordell and his wife, Tawanda. Cordell is a well-groomed man with a white, camera-ready beard, who is often mistaken as his father, Jack. “I’ve been called worse,” he says. Co-owner Tawanda, Cordell’s wife and a former newspaper publisher, has brought a renewed focus on marketing since around 2000, and came up with the “It’s a Memphis Thing!” phrase.
“We wanted to have something unique, I mean Gus’ already had ‘World famous,’” Cordell says, “This one felt the most right.”
Probably because Pirtle’s has been a culinary experience of the town for almost six decades, with many of its defining traits mirroring the city that birthed it. It’s a chain, but a small one; so it’s major, but still cozy. It’s not particularly healthy, but it’s really just too good to spend any time worrying about that. It doesn’t hide its age or imperfections, and embraces its rich history. It’s not necessarily the first place mentioned by visiting elite, but it’s sought out by those who know. President Bush may have gone for the barbecue, but Drake came for Pirtle’s.
And that’s because of the food – starting with the Chicken. Pirtle’s unique recipe isn’t extra crispy or extra spicy. The flavor is hearty and full, with enough flavors dripping from the meat that plenty of extra napkins are usually required.
Each piece of Pirtle’s chicken goes through the same process. It’s lathered in a seasoned milk dip and then goes into a special seasoning flour. Everything is then cooked in pressure cookers.
“The nice thing about pressure cookers is you get nothing but tasty product coming out,” Cordell said.
The Pirtle’s taste came from necessity. In 1965, Jack Pirtle’s first franchise with Kentucky Fried Chicken expired, and the new corporate ownership demanded a full KFC branding come along with any renewal. Jack decided to pass on the offer, and in 30 day, with the help of his wife, Orva, and her Home Economics degree from the University of Tennessee — came up with a brand new recipe and cooking process for his own fried chicken.
“It wasn’t immediate,” Cordell says. “We rely a lot on our employees and our customers for feedback. So they took a lot of feedback for almost a year and made adjustments before they got to what they sell today.”
The fried chicken wasn’t the only thing to evolve. Cordell refers to Pirtle’s signature fried livers and gizzards as a “strangely evolved product.” Cordell explained that livers first appeared on Pirtle’s menus because they were available. In the 50s and 60s, chickens were sold whole, with the gizzard and liver and neck stuffed inside in wax paper. Jack figured, hey, if this food is here, better to try and sell it.
Jack experimented with frying the livers and the gizzards using his steak seasoning instead of the chicken seasoning, and they have since become one of the most popular menu items.
Pirtle’s has a massive menu for a fast-food restaurant, featuring steak sandwiches, sausages, burgers and foot-long hot dogs accompanying the chicken and the livers. Yet the menu evolved again in recent years with dishes like hot and honey wings (a necessity of the hotwing fest, according to Tawanda) and Chicken and Rice (an employee creation) have been added and managed to stay thanks to high popularity.
Other things that “evolved” on the Pirtle’s menu are french fries (have to be thick enough to hold gravy for dipping, but no too thick as to fall apart); gravy (over time cooked on a lower BTU burner to prevent burning, and moved away from a milk base to ensure consistency); and, yeah, even the chicken.
Out of all of that, only the steak sandwich has remained mostly unchanged. An early Jack and Orva creation, the sandwich apparently impressed Colonel Sanders enough that he had conversations about creating a chain of restaurants featuring just that menu item.
Most of these adjustment and creation periods were done while Jack was still alive. Crodell and Tawanda have had some creations, they specifically chose their wing sauce to be a perfect complement to the Pirtle’s flavor; but the major focus now is making sure the quality of the created recipes stays consistent every day at every location.
Flavor from the 50s and 60s that still resonates with people today? Sounds a bit like aspects of Memphis music. The eight locations of on-demand Southern eating that are at once strongly nostalgic and at the same time completely representative of the city’s present — Southern values entrenched in American flavor.
There’s a family-focused attitude emanating from Cordell and Tawanda when they talk about their employees, and also when they talk about the city of Memphis and their community involvement.
The restaurant retains mostly full-time employees, and pays health insurance costs for managers. “We’re not a business that tries to keep gobs of part-time employees so we can bypass all the new rules and regulations that are out there,” Tawanda says. “We offer insurance to our employees and we’ve done that for years — it’s not something new to us.”
The past few years, the chain’s community involvement has grown considerably - most notably in their flagship sponsorships of the Memphis Hot Wing Festival, the Memphis Comedy Festival, and the Memphis Burger Festival.
“We’ve always been involved, but lately we’ve just been more actively involved,” Tawanda says.
When they joined the hot wing festival, Jack Pirtle’s stores did not have hot wings on the menu. They are primarily a chicken restaurant, but they chose to sponsor the Burger Festival. They have sponsored the Memphis Comedy Festival since its inception, despite that fact that Cordell, by his own admission, cannot hear well enough to understand most of the acts.
So why these events? Usually the answer to that is simple — they asked. The hot wing festival sounded like fun, the burger festival was a good food thing to be in on the ground floor of, and the comedy festival, well…
“We just believe in those kids,” Tawanda says. “How can you say no when they aren’t really even asking for money, just — can you feed these kids coming into town?” For her, there was never any question.
“Sometimes people are always concerned about how to make money. I’m more interested in bringing people together. If you bring people together, and people are happy, then everyone will make money.”
The Pirtles must be onto something with that. Pirtle’s brings 3,000 to 4,000 Memphians together in or around their stores every day.
“Our big goal is really just to keep everything fresh,” Tawanda said. “Everything that Pirtle’s has, its fresh food,” Tawanda said. “Everything we have we’re bringing in these doors, fresh, three times a week. And if we can sell all that before the next group comes in, then we’re happy.”
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