But first this! My first job was in my Dad’s barbershop. Dad had a large wood & iron shoe shine stand in his humble 2 chair barbershop on the eastside of San Antonio in a small strip center at the corner of Nolan & Pine. The shoe shine stand was kinda like a high throne, it overlooked the entire barbershop and a clear shot of the outside.
Back then all shoes were made of leather, none of this plastic stuff. Dad would buy the shoe shine polish and supplies at the barber supply. He always insisted on polish made with beeswax.
Dad taught me the intricacies of a great shine. If the shoe was dirty, instead of just brushing it off, I would lather up some saddle soap, lather the shoes and prepare them for a shine.
He told me to always remember the shoes belong to the customer, and sometimes they are the only pair they have. So true, because I only had one pair of good shoes. To “treat their shoes as if they were my own and to add some care and showmanship while shining.”
Dad set the price of a shoe shine at 35¢, that way if a customer had 2 quarters, he just might leave me a tip. He was right! Mind you, we lived in the back half of the barbershop, so anytime a customer would want a shine Dad would whistle and off I would run into the shop to work!
On Saturdays, the busiest day, I would hang out in the shop assisting Dad, sweeping the shop after every customer’s haircut and shining shoes. Like Dad taught me, I would point to a customer’s shoes and say “How about a shoe shine Mister!” The customer would look down at his dirty shoes and many times agree. I would either shine the shoes at the stand or as the customer was getting his haircut and I’d sit on a chrome shine bench close to his shoes.
Now here comes the Church’s after Church story!
I remember every 2 weeks a young dapper Mexican-American fella would come in for a haircut. He was always friendly and would greet everyone, even me, the shoe shine kid. Sometimes he would be dressed in a white short sleeves shirt and black slacks. When he was dressed like that, he smelled like fried food, chicken to be exact! Apparently he had just gotten off of work.
As he was getting his haircut he would always insist on a shoe shine and would always thank me and tip me 20¢! He liked to talk to Dad as he was getting his haircut… local politics, especially about Henry B. Gonzalez, JFK and bowling. Dad was also a good conversationalist, he could touch on any subject.
One day while I was shining his shoes as he was getting his haircut, he told Dad he was the manager of the Church’s chicken on New Braunfels St., close to St. Gerard’s. I knew exactly where that was. Dad would bowl in a bowling league at St. Gerard’s and we’d pass by Church’s. I could always smell it!
He told Dad, “Joe, come by on Sunday morning after 10 o’clock and I will give you some chicken, and bring a bag, a big bag.” I looked up at him and blurted out , “Really!” Dad replied, ‘Maybe.” All I was thinking was Church’s Chicken! I had never had Church’s Chicken, and always thought it was chicken you eat after church. I didn’t realize it was named after someone. Besides we hardly ever ate fast food and the only time we ever went to a restaurant was on our family’s birthdays or Mom & Dad’s anniversary.
The next day, Sunday, we attended Mass at St. Michael’s and all I could think of was Church’s after Church! Mom told me to pray that we go. I prayed so hard, please God, convince Dad to go get some free Church’s chicken.
After Mass we drove home, as we were all getting out of the car, Dad tells me to go get a bag. I knew it! We were going to Church’s!
I ran to where Dad kept the brown paper grocery bags. I looked for the biggest one! It was an old bag from Handy Andy food stores. The bag was from the past Halloween season with a cutout picture of Handy Andy’s caricature face for kids to wear for Halloween. No kid that I recall ever cut them out or would be caught dead wearing it.
Mom told Dad she was preparing some potato salad and cream style corn to go with the chicken. Mom knew all along we were going to go to Church’s! So off Dad and I go to Church’s! Down Pine street, to Commerce street, then New Braunfels . As we passed by Clyde’s bbq, I could smell the delicious bbq, but I could care less, we were going to Church’s Fried Chicken!
Dad parked in the Church’s parking lot. I accompanied him with the Handy Andy Halloween bag. I see the manager, he is in uniform, complete with wearing his paper cap with the Church’s logo. I tell Dad, “There he is!” He opens the small walk up window and he gives us a wave, a smile and a welcome. “Did you bring a bag Joe?” I could barely reach the window, and hand him the bag. Back then Church’s was not a sit down restaurant, it was a walk up chicken to go. Church’s had plenty of windows, so that you could see the chicken being battered and fried.
He takes the bag, goes to a large refrigerator and loads up the bag with chicken and I mean he loads it, to the point of shaking the bag to fit more chicken! Through the glass window, he tilts the bag and hands it to Dad. A drumstick falls out and I catch it.
Dad tells him, “What do I owe you?” He says “Nothing, Joe.” Without taking a no for an answer, Dad insists on paying him. He says “25¢”. Dad reaches into his plastic coin purse and hands him a quarter. “Many thanks”, says Dad and off we go.
Imagine this: Dad and I are seated in our 1956 Dodge Coronet and between us is a huge bag overflowing with Church’s chicken. I am holding the bag so it doesn’t tip over. Dad knows what I am thinking and he says “Go ahead” I reach for a drumstick and he does too. My very first taste of San Antonio’s Church’s fried chicken! Life is good!
At home, we feast on Mom’s potato salad, cream style corn, iced tea and Church’s chicken. The next day, my brother Sonny and I take plenty of Church’s chicken to school for lunch. I share it with my classmates! Some had never had Church’s fried chicken either.
As time goes on I find out the chicken we received was prepared on Saturday night. Saturday night was the busiest night for Church’s Chicken. The chicken that they would not sell, they would refrigerate and discard it the next day. Discard it to us! The Church’s location on New Braunfels St., was the third Church’s Chicken and it is still there.
To this day, my chicken of choice is Church’s, especially on a Sunday after Church!
Now here is a little history about Church’s Fried Chicken…..
Seventy years ago, April 10, 1952, one man’s dream was born. George W. Church Sr. went into the fried chicken business. It was a small little cinderblock box building at 111 South Alamo St.
No inside seating, all walk up. No fancy menu, just 2 pieces of chicken and a soft dinner roll in a cardboard box for 49¢. A bottle of Coca Cola vending machine was outside. Only a single cement picnic table for customers to enjoy their golden Church’s fried chicken.
Many state that the first Church’s Chicken was located across from the Alamo, well that might be true if you consider everything in San Antonio is across from the Alamo. The first Church’s Chicken was on South Alamo street, 3 blocks away from the Alamo, across Commerce street, past Joske’s. You couldn’t even see the Alamo from there. The location now is where the Mexican red torch thingy is. A plaque now stands across the street commemorating the birth of Church’s Fried Chicken.
In the early days while KFC and other restaurant chains were concentrating on expensive high traffic areas, Church’s set up restaurants in working class neighborhoods.
Born in San Antonio, there are now over 1,700 Church’s & Texas fried chicken worldwide. Church’s Chicken is the world’s 4th largest chicken chain.
Church’s Fried Chicken, born in my beloved city of San Antonio!
Rick Melendrez, is a native San Antonian. Melendrez considers himself fortunate to have been born in San Antonio, just 3 blocks from the San Antonio de Valero mission (the Alamo) at the former Nix hospital on the riverwalk and to have attended Catholic grade school on the southside and on the riverwalk.
Catholic education is very close to his heart. Melendrez attended St. Michaels for five years (1960-65) and then attended St. Mary’s School on the riverwalk (1965-68) and onto Cathedral high school in El Paso, Texas.
He is the former publisher of the El Paso Citizen newspaper and former chairman of the El Paso County Democratic Party. He writes a page on Facebook titled “Sister Mary Ruler, Growing Up Catholic In San Antonio”. Everyone is invited to read about the San Antonio of the 1960’s.
(Photo Captions: 3 photos are of the first Church’s location in downtown San Antonio, the 4th picture is of Church’s Chicken #3 on New Braunfels St.)