Auburn resident Stacy Brown, co-founder of the exploding restaurant chain Chicken Salad Chick, would stand at the bottom of the stairs and call up to her children each Christmas morning while husband Kevin waited by the tree. “Oh no! It looks like Santa didn’t come this year!” The children knew. Stacy knew. Kevin knew. Everyone was in on the annual joke, but traditions mandated repetition, no matter the participants’ ages.
Traditions that were splintered November 2015 when Kevin died of colon cancer at age 40.
“We always decorated the tree with the children, each one grabbing their favorite ornaments and telling stories about them all as if we’d never heard them before. We’d play kids’ Christmas music and dance. When Kevin died last November, I packed everyone up and went to my parent’s. There was no way to have any traditional holiday time that year,” says Stacy. Thanksgiving, the Brown’s wedding anniversary, Christmas and New Year’s came within months of his passing. “How many firsts can hit us all at once? All you feel is empty. I packed up and left.” Literally and figuratively.
The next year was spent finding her footing, life, a reason to breathe. Obvious ones garnered her attention daily, her children Carson, 16, Jack, 13, and Lydia, 12. The business she and Kevin founded in 2008 which has grown from the kitchen counter where she spooned homemade chicken salad for friends into 63 locations across the United States with 141 franchises to date. The brand was named the top chicken salad to try in the U.S. by Cooking with Paula Deen and won the 2014 Restaurateur of the Year by the Alabama Restaurants and Hospitality Alliance. The company is number 37 on Inc.’s list of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in the country. “When you’re used to taking care of others, when you don’t do sad well, you don’t know what to tell people when they ask how to help. Luckily for me, I had friends who understood this. Ten special ladies gathered around me and said we are coming to sit with you every Thursday evening until you are okay. I don’t accept help gracefully. So I told them the only way this could happen would be if they would pretend to be the ones in need and let me help them with their problems. We all agreed. They called me Doc and I called them the Sickos.”
The friends met weekly to talk every-day stuff, complaints and frustrations. Laughter and tears. “They let me be normal,” says Stacy. “I could never express to them what this time meant to me. I don’t know how they made themselves available to me like they did. They’re all busy, successful women with families. But they showed up. I could not have gotten through this without them.” Stacy wipes a tear then laughs. “I finally texted the group to say I was happy with their progress and good with scaling back our therapy sessions to once a month.”
Recovery also waited in Stacy’s position within the Chicken Salad Chick. In May 2015, the business had invited Eagle Merchants Partners as partners, and the Browns took on a more executive management role. “The company had grown much bigger than us. We knew that founders can sometimes stunt their own growth. We knew if Chicken Salad Chick was going to reach its potential, we wanted to partner with people that with the experience make that happen and who respected our values and culture. We listened to a lot of interested private equity firms during that time. We found our cultural fit in Eagle Merchants Partners.” Stacy remains on the board of directors and serves as the face of the brand as well as focusing on the foundation.
The partnership allowed Stacy to focus on her children. Daily devotionals continued, knowing a durable faith would help them survive the pain of losing Kevin. “Sometimes we’re so wrapped up in it all, it’s difficult to see exactly what bothers each child, and how they are experiencing pain. I let them know it was ok to be sad. It was ok to cry. That they were going to see me cry. But they would also see me get better. I let them know we were all going to heal together. That seemed to give them security to allow themselves to grieve and allow me to grieve without the fear of wondering whether their mother was going to ever be okay as well.”
Taking a step out of the daily restaurant operations allows Stacy to focus on Kevin’s dream through the Chicken Salad Chick Foundation, a non-profit the couple organized after Kevin’s diagnosis. “The restaurant was always my dream. He worked tirelessly to make sure mine was realized. Now I have the opportunity to do the same for Kevin.”
In spring 2016, less than six months after his passing, Kevin’s dream became reality when more than 50,000 people gathered at Jordan Hare Stadium for a concert featuring Old Dominion, Sam Hunt, Miranda Lambert and headliner Kenny Chesney to kick-off the inaugural Music and Miracles Concert. The fundraiser allowed Stacy to place a check for $200,000 in the hands of cancer research specialists close to finding cures and better medications for quality of life. “I’m still amazed at what Kevin accomplished. When he received his diagnosis, he could have withdrawn and stayed only with those closest to him, and who could blame him if he did? But instead, he thought big, like he always did, and presented the largest concert in the state of Alabama, all to raise money to eliminate this horrible disease.”
The next Music and Miracles Concert will once again be held at Jordan Hare Stadium in Auburn on Saturday, April 22, 2016. Talent includes Blake Shelton, Thomas Rhett, Kelsea Ballerini and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Tickets may be purchased at www.musicandmiracles.com. “We do everything with Kevin’s spirit in mind. What would he think? What decision would he want us to make? His drive and ambition still inspire us every day,” says Stacy.
He’s also leading his family back to holiday traditions. Stacy knows Kevin would want her to continue the activities they enjoyed together, like baking the annual Christmas morning casserole. “I swear I could make that thing on a Thursday in the spring, and everyone would turn up their noses. But because it’s Christmas morning, it’s like it’s sprinkled with gold dust.”
The family will also gather to decorate the tree with Stacy remembering the stories differently to see if the children notice the incorrect versions. They always do, she says. Somewhere in the activity, in the middle of laugher and what is sure to be a few tears remembering Kevin, someone will turn on the kids’ Christmas music.
Stacy’s eyes grow misty thinking of the holiday traditions. “I think I’m ready to dance again.”