The history of Jack Pirtle’s began in the year 1945 when Mr. Pirtle began operating a small restaurant at the corner of Thomas St. and Firestone near what was then the Firestone Tire plant. His restaurant was open 24 hours a day to primarily serve the employees of the Firestone plant and the employees of other industries in the area, many of whom where in operation 24 hours a day. He and his wife Orva and one year old son lived in the back room because he did not have enough money after buying the restaurant to rent an apartment, not that there was any time to go back and forth any where else anyway what with seeing after the business. There were many a time that Orva had to go out to employees homes to pick them up at 1 or so in the morning to bring them in to work because other employees could not come in. This was done with the goal in mind of serving the ཁ working man ཁ, the person who was on the job every day. All the FOOD, PRICES and SERVICE was intended to serve the working man’s needs. This is not to say that there were not working women at the time it is just that working man was the phrase of the time. Mr. Pirtle understood this kind of customer because he himself had worked as industrial labor and in mechanical jobs for most of his life.
Mr. Jack grew up on a small farm in Toone, TN. He was one of 6 children with 3 brothers and 2 sisters. One of the jobs he and his bothers did to bring money into the family was cutting down trees, cutting them up, then splitting them into railroad ties. They carried these railroad ties to the local rail station and sold them for 10 cents each. He worked at the first Ford automobile plant in Memphis that was located on Union in front of where the Commercial Appeal is now located. One of his jobs there was “delivering “ trucks that were built in the plant to small towns in the area to be sold by dealers there. This was before roads were paved and if it rained you would get wet (no cab over the driver then) and many times stuck in the mud. He also spent several years working as a brakeman on a railroad during witch time a fall from a bridge caused an injury that caused him back and shoulder problems for the rest of his life. He was a mechanic in Somerville TN for a while then met his future wife Orva.
Jack and Orva were married in June of 1932. The country was in the “great depression”. The only job he could get was a maintenance man at the Western State Hospital Mental Hospital in Bolivar Tennessee, while Orva got a school teaching job in nearby Rhymer, he was paid $10 a month and they were given a place to stay on the hospital grounds. After working at the hospital for some time a position came open for millwright at the DuPout Co. He applied for and got the job. This job involved a great deal of practical mechanical knowledge and moving about from state to state to construct industrial plants. They lived in a small house trailer they carried with them. During this time and later while working for the Monsanto Chemical Co., he worked on the construction of the world’s first nylon plant in Wilmington Delaware and latter on the world’s first nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Mr. Pirtle always had great pride in having been a part of these projects and their subsequent history. During 1944 while working for Dupont Co. his and Orva’s only son was born while they were in Memphis visiting relatives. They went back to Louisville Kentucky where he was working on a construction job. He made a decision that he did not want to travel with a family. He had a brother-in-law who owned a restaurant in a small town in Missouri and decided that the restaurant business was what he wanted to settle down with. So at the age of 43 with the purchase of the restaurant at Thomas and Firestone he and his wife began their new career.
The restaurant on Thomas was later sold and during the following 12 years Mr. Jack as he had become known, bought and sold 5 other restaurants. He saw after the operations and Orva worked as a waitress, usually handled the cash register and kept the books. Even as he changed restaurants he continued with the same idea, to serve the working individual. During this time he built the first and only house that he ever owned. Yes, he and a relative physically built the house themselves in 1949.
In 1956 he owned a full service restaurant at the corner of Jefferson and Third St., known as Jefferson Cafe, Mr Jack’s bread man at the time told Mr. Jack about an uncle of his that was trying to get someone in Memphis to sell his style of chicken. His uncle had not had much luck with the other restaurant owners in the area and the bread man wondered if Mr. Jack would be interested in trying it. Mr. Jack said yes he would and the uncle came by left 2 pressure cook pots, cooking instructions and the seasoning that was to be mixed with flour. Mr. Jack tried it and began selling the chicken cooked this way just 3 days of the week as a special item. It was well received he started selling it every day of the week. This was the first Kentucky Fried Chicken sold in Memphis. The uncle’s name was Colonel Harlin Sanders and the bread man’s name was Lee Cummings.
Considering the acceptance by the public and success of selling Kentucky Fried Chicken at his sit down restaurant the Colonel suggested that Mr. Jack might like to visit one the more successful and unique franchises that was using the KFC recipe. It was then a new idea that very few had in operation and it was in Bismarck, ND. So Mr. Jack and the Colonel flew to Bismarck. ( It was Mr. Jack’s first airplane flight so the idea had to be very good or he would not have gotten on the plane ). He met with a fellow franchisee named Harvey McDowel who owned a then unique drive thru restaurant. Customers would drive their car into a line where they placed their order over and intercom speaker, then drive up to pay for and get their food. This was a very new concept in 1956. At the time there were only a few restaurants in the entire country to have this feature and banks were primarily the only other businesses that had the feature of driving your car up to a window to be served.
Mr. Jack was impressed enough and believed in the product enough that he came home and began to draw up the plans to build a restaurant of his own for this new style food service. He purchased the first property at 1217 S. Bellevue. The significance of this is that he mortgaged his home, something that he said he would never do, to pay for the materials for the construction. At about that same time the expressways were being built in Memphis and there a number of houses being torn down. He purchased most of the wood, doors and miscellaneous other materials that were used in the construction from one of the wrecking companies doing the work. He did most of the physical construction himself because he couldn’t afford to hire sub- contractors to do it. Lee Cummings helped with the construction. Lee quit the bread company and became the store manager for Mr. Jack. Soon after opening the store Lee went to work for his uncle Colonel Sanders traveling around the country selling new franchises. Lee went on to become president of Kentucky Fried Chicken. After the original KFC company was sold by Colonel Sanders, Lee left KFC to start his own chain known as Lee’s Famous Recipe Fried Chicken.
Mr. Jack opened the new restaurant. Not only selling chicken but included sandwiches.
He felt he needed a variety of foods other than chicken to choose from. The idea was to have enough different items that a customer could come to his store each day of the week and not have to buy the same product. That is why there are hamburgers, hot dogs, livers, gizzards and steak sandwiches. Colonel Sanders was very impressed with the unique steak sandwich that Mr. Jack had developed using Colonel Sanders seasoning.
Soon after opening Mr. Jack realized that this new idea may be too new. No one else that he knew of in the food business in this area had the drive up, talk to someone on a speaker and pick up their food at a service window concept, so customers were not familiar with it. He installed a another window so customers could get out of their car and walk up to be served. It still didn’t do well. There were many days that Mr. Jack and one employee were the only people in the building. He had an promotion idea, he loaded up his car with boxes of chicken at lunch time and go to different work sites and pass out free chicken dinners with the name and address of his store rubber stamped on the top of each box. At the time the only boxes that were being manufactured in the area that fit his needs for chicken to go were cake boxes, so that is what people got at that time, cake boxes with chicken, gravy, biscuits and french fries in a cake box. They weren’t printed but he had a rubber stamp made up and stamped the lid of each box so people would know where it came from. Slowly business started to increase. The store received a lot of business on weekends and especially on Sunday for people who went to McKeller Lake and Riverside Park, both popular places for families to go at that time. In 1961 business was picking up so second store was built and opened at 3543Summer near Highland. Colonel Sanders came to town for the 2 day grand opening. The traffic jam caused by the grand opening was so great that the police dept had to send out several men to direct the traffic. The service idea and the taste of the food was catching on. In 1962 a third store was opened at 811 S. Highland and Douglas. Again, with a 2 day grand opening with the Colonel there to meet the customers and another traffic jam that was so significant that the newspaper sent a reporter to find out what was going on. His story in the paper the next day began with It Was Chicken !
A fourth store was built at 1370 Poplar in 1964. During the time of the construction Colonel Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken company to a corporate group. The store was opened and operated for some period of time serving Kentucky Fried Chicken with the expectation that receiving a franchise would be the same as it had been with Colonel Sanders, . When it came time to receive the actual franchise for that store the new corporation refused to give a contract unless Mr. Jack signed their new franchise agreement. The new agreement included a different and higher franchise fee than the old Colonel Sanders agreement and it required any new franchise store to be built with their new appearance image. All requirements that are standard and expected in franchise agreements today. Colonel Sanders was one of the first food franchisers and was very anxious to get people signed up and operating. The original contract was a double spaced, single type written page that simply said something to the order, that Colonel Sanders agreed to allow you to use his logo, his name and sell you seasoning. You agreed to buy logo imprinted paper goods and seasoning from him and to pay him monthly 5 cents for each head of chicken that you sold for that month. Mr. Jack refused the new franchise agreement because it included a required percentage of sales to be paid and required that he modify the building he had just built. When he refused he was given 30 days to stop using the KFC concept at the Poplar store. The other 3 KFC stores that were already owned by him were not affected in that they operating under the original Colonel Sanders agreement so they continued as KFC until the ten year contracts for each store ended. The last Jack Pirtle store to sell Kentucky Fried Chicken was 811 S. Highland. In 1972 and was converted to the Jack Pirtle’s recipe and operation.
Now that the building Poplar building was completed and open Mr. Jack wasn’t going to have anything to sell. He started developing his own recipe. He and Orva worked on a formula until they felt they had something that was different from KFC, and with what they felt was a better taste. Orva had a degree from University of Tennessee in home economics and had taught for a number of years. This understanding of food and flavor helped in developing the new recipe and taste. While developing his recipe Mr. Jack set out to construct his own cookers. These unique cookers, that he hand built, were used for many years until they were slowly changed out for new commercially built equipment The combination of recipe, cookers and process was naturally called Jack Pirtle’s Fried Chicken. Up until that time the stores were called Jack Pirtle’s featuring Kentucky Fried Chicken.
With Mr. Jack doing the building and Orva still doing most of the bookkeeping 2 more stores were built with the last one that he personally built being at 4349 Elvis Presley that opened in 1968. The seasoning that was used by Mr. Jack was mixed by him with some physical assistance from employees and his son Cordell, but he kept the recipe to himself for many years. Approximately once a week, most of a day was spent mixing the spices and bagging them for use by the stores.
As time went by Mr. Jack passed the recipe store operations over to his son Cordell in 1979. He was 78 years old at the time. He stayed in the business offering his thoughts, ideas, suggestions and guidance up until his death in August 5th, 1985.