The next Starbucks? Missouri-based chicken chain takes wing

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You might not know it, but America’s next big food franchise has been taking shape right under our beaks.

Based in Holts Summit, PFSbrands sells more than 10 million pounds of chicken annually.

But don’t look for restaurants or storefronts. Rather, PFSbrands sells chicken via kiosks inside grocery and convenience stores under the brand names Champs Chicken and Cooper’s Express.

“We believe we have a model no different than Starbucks or Subway or any other major chain,” said founder and CEO Shawn Burcham. “We can grow more nationally. We’re not anywhere near saturated in the markets we are in.”

Over the last three years, the company’s annual revenue has grown from $28 million to $48 million. This year, sales should reach $60 million.

That’s an incredible tally for a company that never expected to sell a single chicken tender.

Less than 20 years ago, Burcham set out to be a deli and kitchen equipment wholesaler. He set up his business in his garage in a small town in southwest Missouri.

Soon it became clear that there was a market for him to sell other items, including food, to his customers. So in 2000, he built a 5,000-square-foot distribution facility, bought a refrigerated truck and began delivering chicken and other deli items as far as his truck could reach.

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Shawn Burcham

With the market continuing to expand, PFSbrands switched business models in 2006 and began selling chicken to a network of wholesalers. The switch to a wholesale model enabled another massive expansion.

Today the company sells through more than 60 wholesale distributors nationwide. These companies then feed roughly 1,000 Champs Chicken and Cooper’s Express locations in 38 states. PFSbrands has also developed a private-label option that allows stores to sell chicken under their own brand names.

The company’s growth has led to big employment gains in Holts Summit, where it operates a 65,000-square-foot national distribution center alongside a growing front office. The company’s workforce totals roughly 120 employees, a number increasing by double digits each year.

To a large extent, the company’s success has come as consumers increasingly want food that’s convenient, affordable and high-quality. Burcham said PFSbrands strives to hit all those marks.

“Chicken is messy to cook at home, and you have to have a fryer,” he said. “Quite frankly, most people my age and younger don’t even know how to cook fried chicken at home.”

Burcham also gives most of the credit to his employees for their work to establish PFSbrands as a national player.

“It’s great to have a rapidly growing company and so many ways for people to advance and grow personally and professionally,” Burcham said. “We really take a lot of pride in our people.”

But Burcham goes well beyond taking pride in his employees – he’s actually selling them his business.

He set up an employee stock ownership plan in 2015 and plans to sell the entire company to his employees.

“My philosophy has always been that if you take care of your people, your people will take care of your customers and everything else falls in line,” he said.

He plans to take the assets from the sale and invest them in new entrepreneurial ideas. Burcham expects some of these ideas will intersect with what PFSbrands is already doing while others will represent new directions.

And as his business holdings evolve beyond fried chicken, Burcham is looking forward to creating more ways for his ownership-minded employees to grow alongside him.

“It will create more opportunities for people to move around and advance their own careers. We need more capitalists,” he said.

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