CHICAGO (CBS) – Brown’s Chicken could soon have a new owner, since an investment company backed by the family of a former executive won an auction.

Pop-Grip LLC, which is backed by the family of spurned Brown’s vice president Thomas Kennefick, but $585,000 at an auction Monday. A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge is expected to approve the bid on Tuesday.

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“We believe that Brown’s Chicken is an iconic Chicago brand known for its quality and wholesome chicken, and we are going to bring it back tasting better than ever,” Brian Bernard, an agent for Pop-Grip, said.

Bernard said that Pop-Grip intends to invest in the 28 Brown’s Chicken stores, “re-establish relationships” with franchisees and put money behind new marketing and promotions.

“Our whole focus is on stabilizing the business,” Bernard said.

He didn’t give details about employees, but the bidders indicated that they probably would close the Portillo’s main office, which employs seven corporate workers. Of the 28 stores, two company-owned stores employ about 24 in total, and the others are believed to employ about 10 each, or 260.

A second bidder, Monarch BE of Chicago, went back and forth with Pop-Grip for more than an hour before stopping at a $575,000 bid. A third bidder, BAB Inc., owner of Big Apple Bagels, started the bidding at $250,000, but did not participate as the auction got under way.
Pop-Grip, a newly formed limited liability company, includes the six children of Kennefick, the 37-year former vice president and minority owner of Brown’s Chicken, whose judgment for what he was owed in the company breakup forced Brown’s into bankruptcy late last year.

A DuPage County judge ruled a year ago that Kennefick was owed $882,000 for his share in the company.

Pop-Grip also includes other investors and industry professionals, Bernard said.

Toni Portillo, president of Brown’s Chicken, and her father, co-founder Frank Portillo, attended the auction.

Toni Portillo said that she has come to terms with the fact that “the unknown is finally over.”

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She said that she intends to open three more-upscale restaurants and continue catering corporate events.

Frank Portillo joked that he wants to be able to tell friends that he is tired of reading so many books and taking so many walks.

Toni Portillo had earlier told the Sun-Times that her father long ago gave Kennefick the shares as a good-will gesture, and mentored Kennefick.

“It’s like a divorce,” Toni had said in the earlier interview. Toni was born in the basement living unit occupied by where her parents — then 22 years old — lived in Brown’s second restaurant, at Lake and Walnut in Elmhurst.

Frank Portillo credited Toni with turning around the business after she came in as president in 2006.

“The first year that Brown’s Chicken made a profit without selling assets after Palatine (the 1993 massacre) was in 2006, after Toni’s first year as president,” he said.

The restaurant chain got its name from John and Belva Brown, who began selling fried chicken out of a trailer at 143rd Street and Wolf Road in the early 1950s. John partnered with Frank Portillo to expand the business. The first Brown’s restaurant was in Bridgeview, on Harlem Avenue.

The chain had expanded across the country by the 1970s. But it later scaled back to only Chicago area locations.

The chain gained infamy in January 1993, when seven people were shot and killed inside a Palatine Brown’s Chicken restaurant, and left in a walk-in freezer. More than a decade later, Juan Luna and James Degorski were each sentenced to life in prison for the murders.

Last year, Frank Portillo Jr. said the crime’s publicity decimated the Brown’s business. The company ended up closing 100 of its 150 restaurants, and sales suffered a double-digit percentage loss, which the company attributed to customer fear and increased competition from other restaurant chains.

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The Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this report, via the Sun-Times Media Wire