Story by Mallory McGowin | Jun 27, 2018
Photography by Gil Long

The world of fried chicken fast-food — or quick-service, as they call it in the business — was shaped by two men: Lee Cummings and his uncle, Colonel Harland Sanders. When the Colonel sold his chicken chain in 1964, Cummings began developing his own “famous recipe chicken.” That very chicken is now sold in Jefferson City and Columbia by two men, brothers John Fisher and Jim Fisher, along with their wise mother hen, Helen Fisher. The Fishers’ vision for their Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken restaurants is simple: a mom-and-pop mentality set within a franchise organization.

“My husband [Gary] was a financial analyst in Kansas City with a big corporation,” says Helen. “He hated corporate life, and he hated city life. So we began looking for something else.”
Gary and Helen Fisher wanted to move to a smaller community, and Helen knew Gary was better suited to run his own business than work in a corporate office. Before long, the Fishers’ search led them to a Dairy Queen franchise opportunity in Missouri. They settled in Columbia and opened their first establishment there in 1970.

Through the years, the Fisher family has built, developed, managed, and ultimately sold over a dozen different restaurants. Through Gary’s tedious research, the Fishers became interested in a franchise opportunity with Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken. The Fishers decided to build their first Lee’s Chicken in Jefferson City, opening their doors to our community in 1989.

At the time, the Fisher family still lived in Columbia. But daily commutes to Jefferson City by multiple family members had them packing their bags pretty quickly. “I would leave home at 6 a.m., get to Lee’s at 7 a.m., and then get home at 2 o’clock in the morning!” says Helen.

But it wasn’t just convenience that drew the Fishers to the Capital City. “We really just love Jefferson City and its small-town feel,” says Jim Fisher. “It’s family-oriented and the people are just nice. It’s a loyal community, and this city is truly business-friendly and wants local businesses to succeed.”

And succeed they have. In addition to the Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken establishments here in Jefferson City and Columbia, Helen’s youngest son, Jason Fisher, owns and operates the family’s Lee’s Chicken in Rolla. The Fishers’ food service business also includes A Catered Affair, a local high-end catering company. The family is also involved in commercial real estate leasing, lending, and building.

Through their business ventures, the Fishers employ about 80 people and boast a relatively low staff turnover rate compared to other quick-service establishments. Each family member agrees that a big part of their success over the years is taking a vested interest in each and every employee and his or her success. “Our underlying goal is that people who come to work for us leave so much more knowledgeable about good work ethic, good morals, and good integrity,” says Helen. “Wherever they go, I want them to be a better person. And with a better character, they will be more successful.”

One way they help their staff become better people is by reimbursing them for college classes. Once someone has worked for the Fishers for a year, a staff member working 32 or more hours per week can turn in their good grades (As, Bs, or Cs) and the Fishers will reimburse that staff member for the complete cost of tuition and books.

“My husband worked for a company that did that for him. That’s how he got his degree,” says Helen. “We were so appreciative of his employer when they did that, so we wanted to do the same.”

“We want to see our staff be successful in life,” says John. “They’re going to have to get an education of some sort in order to better themselves and move on, whether it’s elsewhere or here with us.”

Dori Bedell, director of human resources for Fisher Properties Inc., has been with the company for almost a year. She can’t wait to take advantage of the Fishers’ tuition reimbursement program for her continuing education needs.

“The Fishers’ morals and character were meant for Jefferson City and what this community is all about,” says Dori. “I’ve come from a corporate background where the owners of businesses are not scrubbing floors with you or cooking chicken. The Fishers are willing to do anything right next to their employees. It’s a level of respect and shows us all that every job in this company is important.”

So how do you sustain both a successful company and a successful family dynamic over so many years? The Fishers say open and honest communication is key and admit that they talk to one another about business constantly, even at the family dinner table. “There’s been some hurdles along the way, but we’ve overcome them,” says Jim. “In the end, family is all we have.”

One such hurdle was Gary’s death two years ago. Fighting back tears, the Fishers say they are still adjusting to work and life without Gary. “There’s a void now,” says Jim. “And even more responsibility on our shoulders.”

“But it has certainly made us all closer,” John adds. “We’re moving forward together.”

With new quick-service competitors coming to town each year, the Fisher family says hard work, determination, and sacrifice are what keeps them successful.

“Gary and I learned a long time ago that we can’t look at what anybody else is doing,” says Helen. “We just pay attention to what we’re doing and try to do it the best we can.”

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