Chatter – May/July 2010
Champy’s menu includes key lime pie made with freshly-squeezed key limes
Writer: Merrell McGinness
How can you tell if the food is good before visiting a new restaurant? Well, when basketball legend Magic Johnson eats there. When people living 2,000 miles away request its air-shipped tamales. When couples love the fare so much they get matching tattoos featuring the Champy’s logo and images of popular entrees. No, really.
Chicken and hot tamales. This might sound like an odd pairing, but it’s a winning combination for Champy’s Famous Fried Chicken on Martin Luther King Boulevard. “It was sort of a dare,” explains the man with a chicken leg tattooed on his derriere. “But I got $200 worth of free chicken for it.” After that, word spread quickly about the deal before owners Seth and Crissy Champion put a stop to the unorthodox marketing technique.
Celebrating its first anniversary this summer, the Champions never imagined success would come so quickly. But they offer, after all, very tasty chicken. And while not all patrons are willing to pay permanent homage to the food, plenty are lining up for it. “I can only go about three or four days before I have to have it again,” says regular David Babb. “It’s hard to get better chicken anywhere.”
Champy’s patrons say it’s hard to get better chicken anywhere
That’s because all of their birds are marinated for 24 hours in a blend of secret spices, then battered and fried upon ordering to ensure ultimate freshness. Seth learned the finer points of frying from his family, who owned several fried chicken restaurants in the Mississippi Delta. As for the hot tamales, another delta tradition, he simmers ground beef in spices for several hours before blending with masa and wrapping in a corn husk. Other menu highlights include homemade key lime pie with freshly squeezed key limes, as well as seasonal specials of crawfish in the spring and fried catfish this summer.
While Seth takes care of the birds, Crissy manages the brews and other front-of-house duties. She found the antique metal bathtub that keeps the beverages ice cold, and spent three months tracking down custom covers, or Koozies, for the 40-ounce beers. For an extra $2.50, you can join the “Forties and Fowl” club with a personalized Koozie, which hangs from a clothesline on the bar until your next visit.
Decorated in “Southern picnic style,” the restaurant’s 20 tables are covered in mismatched checked tablecloths and food is served on Styrofoam plates with plastic cutlery. Scrap tin and wood line the walls and a rusted tin roof hangs over the bar and bathrooms — all of which were salvaged from shotgun shacks in Clarksdale, Mississippi by Seth and Crissy. On the same trip the couple ripped a “suicide” door from a rusted, bullet-ridden car that was sitting in a field. It now hangs on the wall, with the restaurant’s slogan proudly scrawled across it in white paint: “Brews, Blues,and Bird.”
“We used a sledgehammer and crowbar, sparks were flying everywhere,” recalls Crissy about the salvage. “It was pretty wild. We ran into a lot of hornets that summer.”
Part juke joint, part chicken shack, Champy’s is a genuine reflection of its owners. Both hail from blues country and B.B. King, Robert Johnson, and other stars plaster the walls as well as the juke box. Sharing the same hometown as B.B. King, Seth learned about the blues in juke joints scattered across the delta. Crissy, growing up just 20 miles south of Memphis, experienced the “fancy” blues of Beale Street.
“I’ve always had a love of the blues and wanted to bring a taste of that to Chattanooga,” says Seth.
Ironically, Seth didn’t realize there was already a connection between the Scenic City and his home state. Champy’s is located just down the street from where famous blues singer Bessie Smith got her start in the 1930s, but the couple didn’t know much about the singer until they’d already signed the lease. While on the salvage trip to Clarksdale,Seth happened to strike up a conversation with some gentlemen at Red’s Blues Club and mentioned the Bessie Smith Strut.
Part of the Champy’s crew: Samantha Goonan, Lauren Ledford, Crissy Champion, Seth Champion, and Chelsea Stephens