Hatched in the Boro: From the University Plaza to Southeast Takeover

Mason McWhorter has maintained a .444 on-base average.

Mason McWhorter has maintained a .444 on-base average.

Araya Jackson

As outsiders coming into to this small town that we reside in for four or more interesting years of our lives, we form the notion that this place would be nothing without us. Without Georgia Southern University , Statesboro would merely be an unrecognizable name on a map. Without the student body, it would be just an exit that travelers pass on their way to visit the historic district of Savannah.

But wait- take a step back to look deep into the history of this place and you might just find something a little more compelling.

There once was a young, ambitious transfer from UGA that walked the halls of COBA. Pursuing a degree in management information systems, he knew one thing: He wanted to be in business for himself, he just didn’t know with what, exactly. After finding the love of his life, a slocal* named Elizabeth, and graduating from GS in 86’, his life was about to take a drastic change.

Little did Mr. Tony Townley know, but he would soon be the co-founder of a billion-dollar chicken industry: a little place we know and love called Zaxby’s.

Back in the late 80’s, the Georgia Southern body was only a fraction of what it is now. “Statesboro has grown like [Zaxby’s] grown. The school’s grown like we’ve grown. Back then there was about 5,000 students, and God what is it today? It’s amazing,” Townley described in a phone interview, as he reminisced about his old stomping grounds.

Townley lived in one of the original dorms on campus, Oxford Hall. Afterwards he lived in apartments for two years, whose name he could not recall. His senior year, however, he ventured off and stayed in a boarding house off of highway 67.

“That was a wonderful experience, living with a family, eating meals with them. I could come and go as I pleased,” Townley explained. He recalls the Dunce family, now deceased, as great people who took care of him.

Any college town, no matter the year, has restaurants and bars where students go to socialize and have a few drinks. Statesboro, however, has an icon. An icon that Townley was no stranger to.

“Our favorite place was probably Dingus Magees, we frequented there quite often. It was the ‘it spot’ when I was in college,” Townley said. Oh, how interesting it is that as things change, they also stay the same.

Townley spent majority of all his time with middle-school best friend, Zach McLeroy. The best friend duo played basketball together, went on double dates together and knew each other better than they knew themselves. “He was more like a brother than a friend, because we knew each other so well,” he described.

Townley, freshly graduated, married, with a child on the way, and McLeroy, single and ready for action, combined their entrepreneurial instincts and every dollar they had to bring something “fun and trendy” to Statesboro. With this dedication, the very first Zaxby’s, or Zax as it was originally named, opened in March 1990.

Fast-forward many years, as of the week of October 1st, 2017, Zaxby’s had a total of 872 stores. Townley said they plan to open their 900th store either at the end of this year, or the beginning of 2018.

From the start, McLeroy was all about the menu, operations, and advertising. Townley, being a numbers man and having previous financial experience, oversaw franchising, accounting and real estate. Now, almost 30 years later, the best friend duo is still at it, stronger than ever.

His bond with McLeroy is not the only one important to him. For Townley, relationships are everything. “Whether it’s a franchisee, a vendor, customers or employees, it comes down to relationships… It takes forever to have a great relationship, and it only takes a second to destroy it. I cannot tell you how important relationships are throughout life.”

For a chicken joint originating in the University Plaza in Statesboro, Georgia, the business has come a long, long way. And for the record, no one can officially say nothing came out of this small college town.

*slocal – Statesboro local

This article first appeared in Fall 2017’s Reflector magazine. 

Photos Courtesy of Stephanie Harris, Executive Assistant of Tony Townley