San Diego Business Journal

San Diego's bat man will soon become known as its bird man , Southern fried bird, of course.

Tony Gwynn, perhaps the city's most revered sports hero, signed a deal this month to become a franchiser of Church's Fried Chicken, the nation's No. 2 fried chicken purveyor behind KFC.

Gwynn said he and his wife, Alicia, considered a number of business arrangements before selecting Church's as their partners.

It was the company's program for helping longtime restaurant employees become franchise owners that made the difference.

"I thought this was an opportunity not only to take care of my family, but to give people an opportunity to become owners themselves. That was the most intriguing thing to me," he said.

The contract with Church's, a division of Atlanta-based AFC Enterprises, calls for Gwynn Sports Inc., the wholly owned business of the Gwynns, to build and operate 100 restaurants in Southern California, from Bakersfield to San Diego, over 15 years.

Jerry Florence, Gwynn's Los Angeles business manager, estimated the 15-year investment to be about $70 million, taking an average of $700,000 per store for property acquisition, construction, equipment, and operating expenses, and multiplying by 100 restaurants.

The number of stores combined with the volatility of the restaurant industry may be intimidating, but Gwynn said he welcomes the challenge.

"It's a high turnover business, but I think, like any other business, the key is getting good people to run it, and running it the right way," he said.

Local Plans

Gwynn said he expects to launch five or six Church's next year, all in the San Diego area, and then average six or seven annually.

Gwynn admitted he received some ribbing from teammates after the Church's announcement, but made it clear the deal in no way signals his impending retirement.

"I'm still playing, and I'm going to keep playing, but obviously you can't play forever and there are many opportunities out there other than playing baseball," he said. "Some may think that because I'm going into the chicken business, I won't be playing too long, but that's not true."

Gwynn signed a one-year, $6 million contract this year with the Padres that also has bonus money incentives. He said he will continue his baseball career "as long as I can and as long as I can be productive."

Church's may be No. 2 in the fried chicken industry but it's got a long track record since its founding in 1952 in San Antonio. Today, the company has more than 1,500 locations, including eight existing stores in San Diego. Its systemwide sales last year exceeded $814 million.

Florence said part of the reason for choosing Church's was the growth occurring in the fast-food market, particularly in restaurants specializing in chicken. He said a federal report on the market showed that market has doubled over the past 10 years. A company study found more than 60 percent of its customers are blue-collar whites, but the fastest-growing segment is Hispanics, followed closely by African-Americans and Asians.

"The chicken market and the fast-food restaurant market is a solid opportunity," he said. "One of the reasons we chose the chicken market is that it is very stable and insulated from the ups and downs of the economy."

Future Possibilities

While Gwynn has been involved in other business ventures and has dozens of endorsements, the Church's deal is certainly the most ambitious for the future Hall of Famer, who filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy in 1987.

"I've got a lot of homework to do, but this was too good an opportunity to let go," he said.

Alicia Gwynn oversees Gwynn Sports, which is involved in a clothing line and will open a store in Poway next month; and a sports memorabilia business. Last year's sales for Gwynn Sports were about $560,000, and this year the company should generate about $600,000, Florence said.

The Church's franchise may not be the only eatery Gwynn lends his name and money to. Florence said he is negotiating a restaurant deal that would carry Gwynn's name, but declined to reveal any further details until the contract is signed.