Chris Fowler, president of Fowler Foods Inc., and wife, Kim, are dyed-in-the-wool Arkansans.
By Caitlyn Sweet | Photography by David Yerby
While the Fowlers a Jonesboro couple enjoy the prosperity afforded to them by owning a number restaurant franchises throughout Arkansas and other states – most notably a string of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants – what matters most to them is helping people in the place they call home.
Chris is a second-generation business owner in Northeast Arkansas. While his enterprise has expanded to an eight-state area, it remains headquartered in Arkansas, where it began.
“We own and operate 88 KFCs and one Taco Bell in an eight-state area,” says Chris of the restaurant management company, which also operates in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. “We’ve been here forever. I’m a second generation KFC franchisee, and my dad is from Manila. Fowler grew up and went to school in Oak Grove, so he has strong roots in Northeast Arkansas. My mom is from Central Arkansas; a small town a little bit south of Hot Springs. So, Arkansas has always been home for us.”
Chris’ father, Wallace Fowler, started the family’s business in 1965 with one KFC. By 1985, they had 93. “We sold all but four, and he retired for a short time and went into banking after that,” says Chris. “And now we’re at 89.”
Northeast Arkansas has always been home for Kim, too, having grown up in Lepanto. But it wasn’t until 2006 that the two crossed paths.
“I found her underneath a cabbage patch,” jokes Chris as he looks fondly at his wife. “In 2006, we had [both] just gone through divorces and didn’t even know each other. We were living in Jonesboro, and our circles just hadn’t crossed. Some mutual friends said, ‘We’ve got somebody you need to meet,’ and after six weeks or so, trying to work out having dinner somewhere between our schedules, we finally were able to meet and, as they say, the rest is history.”
According to Kim, the relationship was well worth the wait.
“It was sort of a whirlwind romance,” she says. “One of my friends said, ‘We’ve got someone for you to meet,’ and initially I was like ‘I don’t want to,’ ‘Don’t even tell me who it is,’ and even ‘Why would he want to meet me?’ But she told me how wonderful he was and explained even if it didn’t go anywhere it would be someone to talk to or watch a movie or grab a pizza with. Just somebody to do things with. We finally got together, and we ended up getting married that fall.”
The couple met in May 2006 and were married that November following a 16-day engagement.
While the initial courtship may have been brief, the couple’s relationship has remained steadfast through mutual respect and support for one another.
“We love and respect each other, and we show that to one another and treat each other that way,” Chris says.
“My primary role with Fowler Foods is to support [Chris],” Kim says. “Sometimes, I go with him to meetings and sit in. He does have to travel a lot, and I used to travel with him quite a bit. And I’m partners in some of the corporations within.”
The work closest to Kim’s heart is in helping others, mainly through her long-time work with Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
This will be her third year as a member of the hospital’s foundation board, but her work for ACH began years ago through fundraising efforts for the hospital.
“I’ve always had an affinity for Children’s and what they do,” Kim says. “Many years ago, I was involved with a circle of friends here in Jonesboro. A group of us got together and came up with a fundraising event called Run for the Roses, which was held each May. It was a derby watching party that we had for the Kentucky Derby.”
According to Kim, the original event was a formal one, held at a local event hall, where guests dressed to the nines in true Kentucky Derby fashion.
“We did that for about seven years, and we were able to raise quite a bit of money for Children’s,” she says. “But then, there were other things that started happening on that particular day and it sort of fizzled out. People just weren’t as interested in it, and they just decided not to do it anymore.”
The Fowlers decided that the event did too much good for the hospital to let it go away. This year, they moved it to their home, made the dress code casual and invited friends over to have a drink and some good barbecue as they spent the afternoon watching Derby festivities.
“Chris and I decided we couldn’t let this die,” she says. “It was too big of an opportunity to raise a lot of money for Children’s. So we decided we would hold it at our house instead of an event hall. One hundred percent of the proceeds go to Children’s, and it also goes toward the clinic here. Last year was the first year we held it at our house, and we’ve already got plans in the works for this coming year.”
“Last year we raised a little over $53,000, and our goal is $100,000 this year,” she says.
“And goals are made to be achieved,” Chris adds.
Tickets are available to the public for $250 each. “We start when all the build-up events begin on MSNBC, around 12:30 in the afternoon. We have beer, wine, mint juleps and Strawberry’s barbecue from Holcomb, Mo. It’s inside-outside. We have people who dress up and wear the hats, and we have people who wear their flip-flops and shorts,” Chris says.
“We like to have the event more casual,” Kim says. “We bring in televisions and have things set up to where people can watch inside or outside by the pool. But we did have several people who wore hats last year. I wore a hat but also just had on a casual sundress. Nothing too fancy. It’s great.”
In August, the couple donated $750,000 to the Arkansas Children’s Foundation, which will use the money to expand its Jonesboro clinic. The foundation said at the time that the funds would be used to buy the 8,000-square-foot building that houses the clinic. The facility will be renovated, and a second full-time specialist will be added, along with a pediatric audiologist and additional diagnostic and ancillary services through the clinic’s Fowler Diagnostic Center.
“That will save people having to drive to Little Rock,” Chris says of the expansion. “They just brought us the plans on it showing us how they plan to have that done, hopefully by May.”
The clinic expansion will also include space for speech, physical and occupational therapy. The Fowlers gave $250,000 in 2015 to create the Fowler Diagnostic Center.
Along with their work for ACH, the Fowlers support other medical endeavors that work to save lives and help families in the area. “As a company, we support St. Jude’s and NEA Baptist, as well,” Chris says.
“We are really working to support their Center for Good Grief, which gives grief counseling for free,” he says of NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation. “I didn’t know this previously, but insurance doesn’t pay for that. We have a very good friend who lost her husband at a young age to cancer, so we gave a significant donation to the grief center in her name.”
Chris says their support for the local grief center will not end at a simple donation.
“They have a doll called Tuga that they give to kids,” he says. “We are helping to spearhead a campaign where local businesses can sell a paper cutout of Tuga for a dollar to raise money for this grief center. All of our businesses in their service area will be participating. We are hoping to raise enough money to fund the operation for one month with this fundraiser. We try to do these kinds of things for people in Northeast Arkansas.”
Chris explains the couples’ desire to help, saying, “You know, much as we would like to, Kim and I can’t solve all the world’s problems. But what we can do is impact the people here at home, in Northeast Arkansas, and that’s what we’re trying to do now and what we hope to work toward for as long as we can.”