Owner of This Georgia Fried Chicken Joint Came Out a Winner After Corporate Bankruptcy By staying true to herself, Vickey Shelton kept the doors of her Mrs. Winner's Chicken and Biscuit restaurant open through tough financial times for the company.

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Mrs. Winner's Chicken and Biscuits.
Vickey Shelton

While Mrs.Winner's Chicken and Biscuits -- a beloved Southeastern quick-service restaurant brand known for its authentic Southern fried chicken, made-from-scratch biscuits and hot frosted cinnamon swirls -- was busy filing bankruptcy and closing 172 company-owned restaurants, one franchisee refused to shut her doors, confident the brand would make a comeback.

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Vickey Shelton and her husband Gary invested their life savings into one Mrs. Winner's restaurant in Stockbridge, G.A. and were determined to make it a success even after the company experienced financial hardship and closed most of its franchised and corporate locations. For four years, Vickey's guests were confused on whether or not they were open or if they were even a real Mrs. Winner's.

Vickey has owned Mrs. Winner's for 22 years and in 2015, for the first time since the brand's downfall, the Stockbridge restaurant experienced an increase in sales. Up 12 percent so far this year, she's hoping for an additional gain, especially since the brand is receiving stronger support for the corporate level and more consumer recognition with two recently signed franchise deals in the Atlanta area.

Having survived corporate turmoil and now recognized by the new executive team as a franchisee who stood the test of time, Vickey says that staying true to yourself and focusing on word-of-mouth marketing are keys to keeping the doors open in tough times.

Name: Vickey Shelton

Franchise owned: One Mrs. Winner's Chicken & Biscuit franchise in Stockbridge, Georgia.

Q: How long have you owned a franchise?

I've owned my Mrs. Winner's Chicken & Biscuit franchise for 22 years, but have been in the franchising industry for more than 30. My husband, Gary and I were first franchisees with Blimpie and invested in Mrs. Winner's to expand our dayparts by co-branding a restaurant. In 2001, we decided to focus solely on Mrs. Winner's.

Q: Why franchising?

Initially, my husband and I chose to go into franchising 30 years ago, because it was a good opportunity for us to fully utilize the land and building we purchased. I enjoy franchising, because it provides a standard business foundation and proven model for success. I firmly believe that franchising success comes with total brand involvement an affinity for following the rules, making me a perfect candidate.

Q: What were you doing before you became a franchise owner?

I was vice president of a bank and had held the position for about eight years. I started to research franchising opportunities mainly because I was putting in many long, stressful hours and rather than devoting them to the bank, I thought I'd work for myself. Franchising offered a more flexible work schedule where I could be at home with my children when they were home, and put in the hours when they were at school or sleeping at night.

Q: Why did you choose this particular franchise?

We looked into Mrs. Winner's as a franchise opportunity, because we were loyal Mrs. Winner's customers. The brand had a strong presence and positive awareness in our community, and we loved the food so much, we knew we'd be proud to serve our neighbors.

Additionally, Mrs. Winner's offered three dayparts which helped us use our land and building to its full advantage.

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Q: How much would you estimate you spent before you were officially open for business?

I invested my life savings to open my Mrs. Winner's Chicken and Biscuit location. I purchased both the land and building resulting in an initial cost of about $430,000. I bought a $175,000 equipment package and allowed for a working capital of $50,000 to cover building permits, training, initial food and paper orders, etc.

Q: Where did you get most of your advice / do most of your research?

Before making any major business decisions, my husband and I always sought advice from the best in their fields of business -- bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, etc. We're avid readers of business publications and were members of the International Franchise Association too. I always respected and appreciated the advice of Bob Sitkoff, senior vice president of corporate services at Blimpie International, and would consult with him on many decisions as I first began navigating the franchise industry.

Q: What were the most unexpected challenges of opening your franchise?

The most unexpected and obvious challenges came 16 years after opening my franchise as Mrs. Winner's filed for bankruptcy protection. That experience is something my husband and I never could have anticipated, as the company was thriving when we initially invested.

When corporate closed 172 restaurants in 2010, it became difficult to survive, as there was wavering brand loyalty due to extreme loss of volume. Guests would come in asking if we were the real Mrs. Winner's, and it has taken a while to regain their trust.

Our guests are extremely important to us, so I made it a point to stress to each of my employees that our goal was to exceed guest expectations every time to ensure they had a positive experience and would be happy to return. It's difficult to anticipate the economy's highs and lows, but I can attribute the health of our business to our overall mentality to treat every guest as if they were family.

Q: What advice do you have for individuals who want to own their own franchise?

My key piece of advice to others who want to own their own franchise is if you love your business, you can make it survive. I refused to let my business go under when corporate was in a transitional phase. The times were difficult, but this was the investment of my life savings and I was proud of what we had built so I didn't give up. I went the extra mile, persevered and am now thriving as a result.

Before investing, I recommend connecting with other franchisees. Don't limit your conversations to those who are happy -- expand to those who are disgruntled as well. Ask them questions to see if the business has problems or if the franchisee is not cut out to handle the business. Then ask yourself if you can handle that or even if you have a desire to handle those issues.

I'd also like to note that although my husband and I were seasoned franchisees when we first opened Mrs. Winners, we did not expect to open with such a high volume. It became obvious early on that our staff was not trained to properly handle and maintain a high volume. Remember, it's worth the investment to train your employees to maintain high volume in a restaurant business.

Related: From Anheurser-Busch Sales Rep to Restaurateur, This Man Has Made a Career of Wings and Beer

Q: What's next for you and your business?

With recent increased sales, which I expect to continue with the resurgence of the brand, I plan to remodel and update the restaurant, replace our equipment and invest in local advertising. Under new leadership, I see Mrs. Winner's attracting new franchise partners, which will ultimately result in the brand having stronger purchasing power. I look forward to what the future holds for Mrs. Winners and so do our customers.

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