by Leah Lowe | Jeffersonville, Ind. – Jerry Ayres Jr. buried his father just weeks ago. “I’m pulling in now,” he assured me via text. On this Monday morning, he came hustling into his Jeffersonville store in a pressed gingham shirt bearing the Zaxby’s logo. He’d been away for the weekend with his family, a short reprieve after a long series of very heavy days. There are a few drops of sweat on his brow from the hustle, but he’s a looming, squared away figure. A gentle giant.
“I think he’s out of town,” General Manager Jackie Clemons told me just minutes prior as she offered me something to drink. I’d arrived a bit early and the restaurant was empty – and notably immaculate. The smell of clean submitted to the aroma of chicken, and the staff was abuzz preparing things for the coming lunch rush. They laughed among each other but worked with a seamless efficiency. A GrubHub driver came and went away with a large order after the manager repeated the details in a quick double-check. The cat was away, but the mice had it together.
When Jerry came in, they were visibly happy to see him – he greeted me with a warm smile and wave, but went right to it.
“Do you mind if I make a call real quick?” he asked, patting a member of his staff on the back.
Zaxby’s is a franchise based in Georgia, with restaurants throughout 13 plus states. The Ayres family has been involved with the company as a franchisee for over ten years. With locations throughout Louisville, Indianapolis, and Clark County – they currently operate 8 stores. A partnership with Louisville Zaxby’s owner Steve Brewer allowed for more growth, but Jerry will tell you that the Clark County area has always been chief in mind with the Ayres family.
“Dad has always loved Jeffersonville and the Clark County area. It’s just been such a big part of his life, where he started his business and served the community.”
Gerald Ayers Sr. passed away just a month ago after a brave battle with pancreatic cancer. While a thriving business, Zaxby’s served as somewhat of a retirement investment for the elder Ayres, who founded Ohio Valley Ready Mix – a successful concrete company that served the Clark and Floyd county areas for over three decades, while also making an effort to regularly give back to the local communities.
When the younger Jerry Ayres graduated from Franklin College, his father suggested he go to work for a Zaxby’s franchise and eventually become a partner in their business. They’d been batting around the idea of investing in the company for around a year. The timing seemed right, and they had a feel for the growth taking place within the communities that would allow for a franchise like Zaxby’s to thrive.
“I had to go find a franchise and work for a year for free,” Ayres said. “At first I’m like, Dad…I work for a year…for free? I didn’t understand it. But now…” Ayres pauses in reflection. He smiles, though there is a sadness to him – but a flicker of pride that is palpable when he speaks of his father.
“We had to learn the restaurant business if we were going to get into it, and that was the best way to do it.”
Ayres spent a year learning Zaxby’s by immersion – from top to bottom, working for his now business partner Steve Brewer at his Shelbyville, Kentucky location. Those lessons are still evident today, as you watch him work his way around his store and in the way he interacts with his staff. He’s done the work himself and appears to have developed an understanding and respect for all aspects of the business, from the numbers to the drive-thru.
Jerry also learned from his father by immersion – growing up in the same household, and then after college his father moved back from Florida to become his next-door neighbor. “My son would get up in the morning and say, “I’m going to take Papaw the paper.” Ayres says. “Then he’d spend the day with him.” At just three years old, it’s been a tough loss for the youngest Ayres. Jerry tells me of an angel statue they keep on their porch, that to their son a stand-in for Papaw. He kisses him in the morning and reminds the family that Ayres Sr. is watching over them.
I asked Jerry what he feels most strongly about in terms of carrying on his father’s legacy – a tough question to ask a man who is only weeks out from such a devastating loss. Ayres Sr. battled pancreatic cancer for months, and the family knew the prognosis was grim.
“Everyone told me, you’re going to be torn up for a while,” Jerry said as he discussed his father’s final days. “He always taught me to be prepared, to push through,” he says – reflecting on lessons of life and business. But loss is a different animal, and Ayres admits that losing his father hit him hard, especially in the first few weeks. His eyes tear up a bit, but he smiles as he answers my question.
“My Dad taught me so much about being a “community person” and giving back. It’s my favorite part of the business – helping the schools and helping the community. Seeing the impact, sometimes looking back on social media and remembering the things we’ve been able to do to help people. They still come to us like, ‘we never would’ve gotten there without you guys, I appreciate it,” Jerry says. “It just feels really good to be in a position to be able to help.”
You can’t go far in Clark County without seeing some touch of Zaxby’s and the Ayres family. Here in the Charlestown and Jeffersonville area, they sponsor a number of athletic and academic programs as well as other initiatives.
“They donate to every community event,” says Tom Kendrick, Charlestown Township Trustee. “We have a poker tournament for my Dad every year, we work on scholarships, they sponsor anything when asked and provide food, they are there for us.” Kendrick continued. “Jerry always asks – can we do more?”
Zaxby’s also recently made a large donation to Charlestown’s Excellence in Education (CEEF) fund, according to Mayor Bob Hall.
To Ayres, community is larger than just Charlestown, Jeffersonville, New Albany. They see the area from a regional perspective – a bigger picture. Giving back whenever asked, they sponsor sports teams and events throughout the area and are actively involved in area schools from Charlestown to New Albany andJeffersonville, as well as Providence High School.
“The partners I have are a lot like my Dad – Steve [Brewer]. He’s an older guy that just…he believes in community. It’s awesome to have people with you that are not all about money or hitting that bottom line,” Ayres said. “Obviously it’s a business – but we love giving back.”
“The Ayers family and Zaxby’s have a long history of community involvement and financial support,” says Jeffersonville’s Mayor Mike Moore. “Their generosity to our local schools and children is always greatly appreciated.”
Ayres said he loves seeing kids coming in with uniforms sponsored by Zaxby’s. They are currently working to sponsor shirts for a local kids camp, and several sports teams throughout the area. They don’t play favorites, however – insisting their focus is on the bigger picture.
“We give to everybody,” Ayres says. “There is no…we don’t pick sides on anything, from sports to politics. And I think anybody that knows us, or gets to know us…we don’t care who wins the games, we don’t care who wins the races. We just – we help everybody.” Ayres explains that donating food helps groups and organizations, but also helps to get the Zaxby’s name out. “We can’t do it all, obviously,” he says, “but we sure try to do as much as we can.”
Jerry says that while he is the guy that everyone tends to think of as the face of Zaxby’s, or the one that people tend to call on – his brother Todd is also very involved in the family business.
“It’s been a great experience having both my Dad and my brother Todd as business partners – they have always supported me not only in learning the business, but in sharing the same love for our community.”
Ayres is also quick to point out that his successes wouldn’t be the same without the work of his business new partner Steve Brewer, the Louisville Zaxby’s franchisee.
“Hopefully together, we’ll bring a lot of excitement to both sides of the river in the near future.”
While Jerry says he has been asked quite a bit lately about a new location in Charlestown, he feels that their location on Highway 62 is poised to continue to serve not only the coming growth, but the communities of Charlestown and Jeffersonville. While not ruling out an expansion, he states that he and his Dad put considerable thought into the positioning of their franchise locations and the proximity to one another.
“If your locations are too close to one another, they will tend to cannibalize each other in terms of business,” he states. He doesn’t see a Charlestown location as an impossibility, but says that it’s not been a part of their plan thus far. Despite not being positioned in town, he considers Charlestown to be a part of the larger community that Zaxby’s serves.
“We do pretty much something with every school, every community.” Ayres says, We love Charlestown and Jeffersonville, we love the kids, we appreciate the business and the ability to be a small part of things.”