America's Favorite Chicken, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, is the parent company of Popeye's Fried Chicken and Biscuits and Church's Fried Chicken, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas; these fast-food chains specialize in Southern-style fried chicken. George W. Church, Sr., of San Antonio, Texas, founded Church's in 1952, at a time when only hot dogs and ice cream were being marketed as fast food. Church, a retired incubator salesman in his sixties, drew on his knowledge of the poultry industry in conceiving the idea of marketing low-cost, freshly fried chicken as a convenience food. The first Church's Fried Chicken To Go, in downtown San Antonio across the street from the Alamo, sold only fried chicken. French fries and jalapeño peppers were added to the menu by 1955, and at the time of Church's death in 1956, four stores were in operation.
In 1962, when the chain operated at eight San Antonio locations, George W. "Bill" Church, Jr., took over the family business. He and his brother Richard are credited with concocting the unique marinade used on Church's chicken. George initiated the firm's rapid expansion and started the company's first units outside the state in 1967. Church's did not initially franchise its business as did other convenience food chains.
By 1968, when the company reported revenues of $2.7 million, it was operating seventeen stores in five Texas cities. That year Church's reorganized to allow the original family firm to expand into a chain, and in 1969 Church's Fried Chicken, Incorporated, became a publicly held company with new company headquarters in northwest San Antonio. By the end of 1975 the company had 554 stores in twenty-two states, primarily in Texas, the South, and the Midwest, and had begun to diversify into speciality hamburger shops under the name "G.W. Jrs." Franchising began in 1976, and international expansion started with the opening of the first Church's in Japan in 1979. Sixty-two Texas hamburger shops were in operation by 1982, but the hamburger business was discontinued in 1985.
Church's restaurants displayed a distinctive architecture, designed and engineered to stress productivity by Shikatani Lacroix Design, a Toronto-based firm noted for establishing corporate identity. Each restaurant was a modular building, constructed for adaptability to any part of the country. Sufficient cash flow enabled the company to purchase its real estate rather than lease it. Church's established a San Antonio plant to manufacture its own equipment with the help of computer-aided design machinery and robotics.
In the 1980s, growing competition prompted Church's to close 112 outlets, and the Bass family of Texas to trim its stake in the company. A hostile takeover attempt by Alvin Copeland of Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken and Biscuits, headquartered in New Orleans, Louisiana, succeeded in a 1989 leveraged buyout, resulting in the ousting of company president Ernest E. Renaud and in significant layoffs. By 1991, Popeye's faced bankruptcy. A new company called America's Favorite Chicken, incorporated in Minnesota with offices in Atlanta, replaced Al Copeland Enterprises as Church's parent company in 1992, after federal bankruptcy-court action confirmed a plan for reorganization. Church's was the nation's second-largest fried chicken chain that year (behind Kentucky Fried Chicken), with sales exceeding $510 million. Chairman and chief executive officer of AFC in 1993 was Frank J. Belatti. In 1993, the company entered a purchasing cooperative with its franchisees to provide reduced freight charges and manufacturing prices, eliminate broker fees, and reduce distribution costs to restaurants. It continued to manufacture its own spices at a San Antonio plant, and to acquire its raw materials by contracting with such vendors as Pilgrim's Pride, Tyson's, and Coca-Cola. In 1994, AFC owned 605 Church's and 111 Popeye's restaurants and had 335 domestic Church's franchises and 655 Popeye's franchises, along with 143 international Church's and fifty Popeye's. Church's restaurants could be found in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Korea. In the 1990s, the firm was ripe for takeover attempts because of its large real estate holdings.
Church's philanthropic activities have included a major donation in 1992 to the United Negro College Fund and the 1993 founding of an annual Kids Fair in conjunction with KABB, an independent children's television station in San Antonio. Its Operation Kid Print promotes child safety. AFC subsequently announced its plan to become a major corporate sponsor for Habitat for Humanity, a program dedicated to rebuilding inner cities and providing low-income housing.