If you’re wondering if Guthrie’s is an institution at Auburn, you really have to look no further than father and son Chris and Tyler Roush.
“I think I ate there at least once a week while I was in college,” says Chris Roush, who graduated from Auburn University in 1987. “Sandwich plate with fries. Extra Guthrie’s sauce.”
Thirty years later, the order changed, but the hunger was the same.
“Double sauce, double toast, no fries,” says Tyler Roush, who graduated in 2019 and lived around the corner from a Guthrie’s location while a student at Auburn. “A drive-thru being that close was dangerous.”
Joe Kelly Guthrie has lived that Guthrie’s tradition. One of the sons of Guthrie’s founder, the late Hal Guthrie, the younger Guthrie is now president of the Guthrie’s restaurant chain.
With locations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, it’s a far cry from the original Guthrie’s in Haleyville that opened in 1965.
“They sold a little of everything at that time, like a lot of Southern restaurants over the years,” Guthrie recalls. “Whatever sticks, whatever sells, you go with it.”
For Guthrie’s, that was chicken. Hal Guthrie came up with the chicken-breading recipe in 1968, and to this day, the restaurants use the same marinade and breading recipe that he did.
They also use the famous Guthrie’s sauce, which was born out of a friendly competition among the Guthrie siblings when Hal decided to sell chicken fingers in 1978.
“It’s so fresh in my memory,” Guthrie says. “My older brothers and sister and I were in the restaurant, and Dad came in and said, ‘We’re going to start selling chicken fingers. I want you kids to come up with a sauce.’”
Condiments started flying, and, as Guthrie recalls, “30 minutes later, we had three tables of sauce strewn all over as only an 8, 9 and 10-year-old can do.”
Older brother Hud won out with is concoction. “My dad stuck his finger in there and said, ‘That’s the one we’re going with,’” the younger Guthrie says. “It was obvious once we started using it that we had something special. We called it special sauce, then signature sauce. It was different and unique.”
It was brother Chris who brought Guthrie’s to Auburn. And it was Chris who, in the fall of 1982, talked his father into letting his Auburn location drop other items from the menu and just sell chicken fingers. “That location on Opelika Road became the first chicken-finger restaurant in the world,” Guthrie says.
The chicken-finger business took off, and by 1987, that’s all any Guthrie’s location was selling. They still are, at about 40 locations around the region, though that original Auburn location closed in 2012.
Competition has gotten fierce, and Guthrie has just come to accept it.
“It took us a little while to adjust to it and realize there wasn’t only room for one,” Guthrie says. “There are multiple concepts out there now. It was tough to get used to.”
That competition, along with the 2008 recession, led to some tough times for Guthrie’s. The chain, headquartered in Auburn, has rebounded with new, more streamlined restaurants.
“If you open up good-looking stores with good service and keep them clean, people love it,” Guthrie says. “About 10 years ago, we started redesigning everything. The stores we had been building were too big.”
Guthrie says the plan right now is to open 15-20 stores in the next year.
“We are in a very large growth mode,” he says. “Chicken fingers are the hottest segment of the industry right now. It’s already huge, but it’s going to be a lot bigger in the next 25 years.”
Though his father and brother Chris have died, Guthrie’s mother, brother Hud and sister Anna Margaret are all still involved with the restaurants, “though not as much as they used to be.”
They’re all proud that Guthrie’s calls Alabama home and has made such a mark on the chicken-finger restaurant industry.
“We’ve learned a couple of times over 55 years what we are the best at,” Guthrie says. “We reserve the right to change our mind at any time, but not in the near future. This chicken-finger restaurant concept we invented is still hot and fresh all over the country.”