Andrew Withers is all about great food. Come summertime and you’ll no doubt find him outside prepping the grill for the evening barbecue. “But I’m not allowed in the house,” he laughs. “My wife does all the in-house cuisine.” Fortunately, as the chairman and owner of Fast Food Systems, the company that owns the restaurant franchises AJ’s Piri Piri, Piccolo Pizza and, most importantly, Southern Fried Chicken, he’s never at risk of running out of flavours and ingredients to experiment with. In fact, mixing up his professional and personal lives has proven a hit in the past. “My wife once said our sauces were like ketchup, that they were tasteless,” Withers remembers. When he took this insight to the company and asked to add some spice, it didn’t take long before the sales heated up too.
However, no one should be surprised about how closely the two spheres of Withers’ life are entwined. Not only has he spearheaded the growth of the company for over 30 years but being the founder’s son meant he acquired a taste for the food industry at an early age. “My father was very hard-working and taught us that if you want to do well you have to work hard,” he says. Long before Arthur Withers came up with the concept that would develop into Southern Fried Chicken, Withers Sr worked for a long string of food companies. And during the weekends his son helped out baking doughnuts, frying up hot dogs and learned the basics of the industry he would dedicate his life to. “Catering is definitely in my blood,” he shrugs.
By working for one of these companies the older Withers had the chance to go to America and it was there he had the light-bulb moment that would change his family’s lives forever. The pivotal experience was when he was served a plate of fried chicken in a South Carolina hotel restaurant. “He loved it,” Withers says. During the same trip he also had a chance to see a Mississippi steamboat with the sun rising behind it. The scene made a huge impression – it was the first thing that popped into his mind years later when asked what he remembered from tasting the delicious dish. “And that became the logo with the name as we see it today,” his son says.
Nevertheless, this success was still years into the future. To begin with Withers Sr had no intentions of opening a chain of fast-food restaurants. “Initially, we were just mixing spices in a garage,” his son remembers. The aim was to replicate the flavour Arthur Withers had tasted on his US trip and to sell it to traditional fish and chip shops eager to expand their menu in order to compete with quick service restaurants like McDonald’s that were slowly spreading at the time. “There was no name to the brand,” Withers says. “There was just a recipe we sold and that was the beginnings of the business.”
One of the key moments came when Withers’ mum asked him to join the company in 1980. “At the time I was in a music studio recording punk rock,” he says. While he loved the music industry and had no intentions of leaving it, his mother eventually convinced him to change his tune. There was just one slight snag: Arthur Withers had no idea about his wife’s plans. “He was a bit shocked,” Withers says. “He didn’t want me to join to be honest. He wanted me to go out and find my own future and career.” Even though his father was less than thrilled, having his son onboard would prove pivotal for the business evolution into an international franchise.