Church’s Chicken: A Work in Progress

Church’s Chicken is an American chain of fast food restaurants specializing in fried chicken. The chain was founded as Church’s Fried Chicken To Go by George W. Church, Sr., on April 17, 1952, in San Antonio, Texas, across the street from The Alamo. The company, with more than 1,700 locations in 25 countries, is the third-largest chicken restaurant chain behind KFC and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

Church’s is known for thriving in tough markets housing lower income demographics. Many investors actually prefer these investments because there is a sort of hedge against risk in these markets. The perception is that regardless of what hardships hit these markets, they will always need to eat cheap and Church’s is there to provide that service. In the recent past, however, with the chicken market exploding, Church’s has had some tough competition. Church’s as an organization has made serious strides towards improving their competitive position.

According to the organization itself, burger joints and grocery stores are stealing their thunder lately. It could be argued, however, that their biggest competition is the local shop across the street. Even they agree that the business is a battle of street corners. Essentially, it is all about real estate…Who has the hard corner with the highest traffic counts? Who is most likely to pull customers in from the street and capitalize on their impulse for dinner?

Admittedly, Church’s as an organization is working on both variety of offering and also increasing volume through drive-through efficiency. According to Nation’s Restaurant News (NRN), Church’s has been ramping up their technological offering in an attempt to improve their drive through experience.

Who is the drive through competition though?

Chick Fil A, Raising Cane’s, Zaxby’s…There is some tough competition out there. Church’s has clocked their drive-through time in at just over three minutes and 30 seconds, which is impressive, but you also have to get the order right. According to recent data published by QSR Magazine on the accuracy of QSR fast food joints, some of the top contenders include Raising Cane’s topping the list at over 97% accuracy…Chick Fil A pulling 3rd with over 93% accuracy…and Zaxby’s clocking in at over 90% accuracy. Church’s Chicken unfortunately did not make the top 15 on the list.

With a dinner oriented business, focused on a lower income demographic and catering to the entire family, there is still little competition for the type of value their $5 Real Big Deal brings. It is hard to beat a deal that cheap that can feed the family while also offering choices that allow you to customize your meal.

When it comes to Church’s Chicken as a real estate investment, there are certain characteristics the deal holds that you cannot ignore:

  • Like many QSR properties, the real estate tends to maintain core desirable properties:
    • Hard Corner
    • Main Thoroughfare
    • Good Ingress/Egress
  • The rents are low
    • With rents averaging around $20 PSF as a concept, if the demographics were to shift in a landlord’s favor, there could be some generous upside in rent appreciation.
  • Demographics have a sustainable need
    • The target demographic, although thrifty, has proven to spend money on convenience. The concept works and is typically recession-proof. Even when there is a downturn, the main household income for this demographic will not shift as dramatically as other higher income areas. Because the demographic is self-sustainable, they can often replicate the disposable income necessary to spend money on eating out more readily than other economically hard-hitting areas.

Over the past twelve months, Church’s Chicken has had an average cap rate of 7%. Similar to the story above regarding the sustainable demographic, the cap rate has also remained fairly stagnant compared to other concepts. Why? Mainly because while the risk or perception of risk in other concepts varies greatly around market traction, the perception of risk for these types of assets remains fairly the same over time. The guarantee has not shifted much; and although the demographics will never demand a certain amount of sales, the demand for the concept and product is there. The density of the population and demand from the surrounding population will sustain the concept.

The challenge for an owner is: what happens if they leave?

If you own a Church’s Chicken and the lease term is approaching, a major question is: Will they stay or will they go? As an owner with this question in mind, you hold significant risk. Although compared to other net-leased investments, the average Church’s Chicken pays a fairly low rent per square foot, the sustainability of the cash flow stream can still be unclear. The nature of the target demographic is a pro in the fact that it is in constant need of the product, but a con in the fact that even though the base rent is low, if Church’s left, you would be stuck trying to lease to a local tenant likely at half the market rate. Your cash flow would be cut in half. If you are a savvy investor and have enough tenant relationships to redevelop the parcel or sit on it until it can be redeveloped with a stronger tenant, then you are in good shape.

Most of us, however, are not in that kind of position.

I urge clients to look at their investments critically and evaluate their options on a regular basis. I am here to help. I’m evaluating risk, cash flow, equity, and future value for clients on a daily basis and I’m happy to do the same for you. As you plan your long-term investment strategy, it is imperative that you look at how your existing portfolio fits into your long-term plan. An investment like Church’s Chicken has its pros and its cons; it can certainly be a strong part of a comprehensive portfolio, but my point is that nothing should be left to chance. If you are not looking at these investments with a strict magnifying glass and comparing them to the rest of your long-term plan, then you need to re-evaluate your investment strategy. I am happy to help wherever it makes sense, so please reach out if you are curious about your existing portfolio, looking to diversify, or simply wish to keep a pulse on what is happening in the market and how you can best capitalize on the recent market changes.

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