- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

HARTSVILLE, S.C. (AP) - George Atkins has been a businessman for a long time, specifically a chicken businessman.

He started working at Pee Dee Hatchery in Hartsville when he was 15 years old. His neighbor owned the operation and hired Atkins to work all through high school and two summers of college.

Atkins said his daily tasks at the hatchery consisted of “the dirtiest things you could do. I counted baby chicks, and I would clear the trays the eggs would hatch in and carried all the waste to the landfill in big 55-gallon drums.”

He also recalls transporting chicks to Georgia soon after receiving his driver’s license. Atkins was nervous about driving the big “chick bus” a long distance.

His boss, Walter Wofford, told him, “By the time you get back, you’ll have it figured out.”

After high school, Atkins attended Wofford College to study economics. He was planning to use his degree to go into the funeral industry. Plans changed, though, when Wofford decided to sell both Pee Dee Hatchery and Chick-A-Ray Poultry and Egg Co.

“I planned on going to embalming school and going to work for my father, but he (Wofford) just made me an offer,” Atkins said. “I’d known the chicken business well since I grew up in it, so I told my wife-to-be we’re going to stay in Hartsville and I’m going in the chicken business.”

In 1986, Atkins bought both businesses from Wofford. Atkins didn’t know at the time that buying those two companies would lead him to owning the nation’s last remaining Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken.

For 26 years, Atkins owned Chick-A-Ray Poultry and Egg Co., which supplied all of the chicken for the Yogi Bear restaurant, just across the street.

Atkins told the previous owner, Earl Richardson, that if he ever wanted to sell, speak up.

“I knew the volume that the restaurant was purchasing from me, because they bought all their chicken from me,” Atkins said. “I kind of had an idea about how the business was doing.”

In 2004, Richardson approached Atkins with that exact proposal.

“One day he walked in my office and he said, ‘I’m ready to sell, and I’m ready to sell right now.’”

Atkins says he sees new business ventures as projects and enjoys the demanding job.

“I used to work about 100 hours a week for years,” he said. “When I was at Chick-A-Ray, I’d go to work at 3:30 every morning. I just like the challenge. Always have.”

Work demands have slowed a little for Atkins since he sold Pee Dee Hatchery approximately 10 years ago and Chick-A-Ray three years ago. He says he doesn’t need to be in the office all day but rather peppers his day with stops to check in on the restaurant.

Just because Atkins has slowed down a little bit doesn’t mean the business has as well. He said sales have grown roughly 10 percent every year since 2008.

The line of people at Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken during the lunch rush hour backs up this statistic. Every table is being used by customers enjoying their meal, whether it’s the classic fried chicken, fried tilapia or catfish, or the restaurant’s newest item: shrimp creole.

Cynthia Lighty and Shauntelle Prince, from Lamar, are among the restaurant’s loyal customers. Both women say they’ve been dining at Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken for more than 20 years. Lighty said she even comes two or three times per week.

Some people might think it is quirky that Atkins owns the last remaining Yogi Bear’s Honey Fried Chicken in the nation. To Atkins, it’s just another business.

“It’s really no big deal that we’re the last one,” he said. “It all goes back to management. I think a lot, too, has to do with the way you treat your employees. I give my employees a fit - in a good way, not a bad way. They’re just like family to me.”


Information from: Morning News, https://www.scnow.com

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