Kevin Brown motioned for a pen and paper from his hospital bed. The ventilator that was keeping him alive was also keeping him from speaking his last words.
His wife, Stacy, read Kevin’s final farewell to friends and family at his funeral a few days later.
“Live every day like it is your last. I love you. You have opportunities beyond your wildest imagination.”
He died nearly five months ago. Stacy talks about him and their lives together as if he never left.
The couple created Chicken Salad Chick, one of Alabama’s fastest growing chain restaurants, from almost nothing.
In 2003, newly divorced Stacy found herself in a predicament: She had three young children, no money, no husband and no prior work experience.
She didn’t have cash to pay a baby sitter so she needed to find a job that allowed her to stay home with her children.
Stacy has been a cook ever since she could walk to the kitchen. So she decided to earn a living doing what she loved. She started by going door-to-door selling chicken salad.
Just as she started to build a strong customer base, though, the health department shut her down — it’s illegal to sell food that was cooked in a private home.
Stacy thought her luck had run out. But her business partner and longtime friend, Kevin, wasn’t going to let a little health code violation stop them from building what he knew would be a great restaurant.
It took some convincing on Kevin’s part, but together they rented a little space on Opelika Road. They fixed it up themselves — there was no money for a contractor — and opened for business with 40 pounds of chicken salad.
For an hour and 15 minutes, nobody showed up.
“But it felt like forever,” Stacy said.
Eventually, though, customers started to trickle in.
Word spread like wildfire and business quickly started booming. Everybody who visited came back with somebody else in tow, Stacy said. The little take-out restaurant wasn’t built to handle the success. Stacy couldn’t serve a scoop of chicken salad without stepping over at least dozen customers.
In the middle of all this wonderful chaos, Kevin and Stacy found a deep love for each other.
They were polar opposites that balanced each other out perfectly in business and in life.
The first restaurant opened in January 2008. They were married by November.
Gradually, but not too gradually, their little chicken salad business grew into a bunch of little chicken salad businesses.
Today, Chicken Salad Chick has 52 restaurants across the Southeast and has sold 141 franchises.
The company’s franchising success is largely because of Kevin’s business savvy, Stacy said.
He detailed every little thing that happened in the restaurant — from when the lights switched on in the morning to when they switched off at night — so new owners knew exactly how to run a successful business.
Kevin wasn’t feeling well as the couple prepared for Chicken Salad Chick’s first owner’s convention in Destin, Florida. He thought he was most likely suffering from a gallbladder disorder. His symptoms worsened during the trip, so he went straight to the doctor after he returned to Auburn.
A few days later, Stacy received the call: Kevin had stage 4 colon cancer. It had already spread aggressively to his liver. He would never again know life without chemotherapy.
“At that moment, every ounce of energy in my body left me, and I collapsed to my desk,” Kevin wrote after receiving the news. “Like so many that hear this type of diagnosis, the thoughts of mortality rush through your mind. Reflections of what I could have done differently, how I could be a better husband, father, leader and Christian filled my thoughts.”
But Kevin, ever the optimist, resolved to make the best out of the heartbreaking situation.
“It was at that point that a voice spoke to me and said, ‘This is your opportunity for much greater things,’” Kevin wrote. “‘Use this in ways that will impact those around you.’”
The company’s board of directors was looking to start a charitable foundation before the diagnosis, but they hadn’t yet settled on a cause. They were leaning toward contributing to the fight against hunger in the United States. It seemed a natural fit for a restaurant.
It was decided they would remain committed to their original idea, but they would also work to help those who are fighting cancer and those who are fighting to find a cure.
Kevin never stopped working, Stacy said, no matter how bad the pain got.
The foundation raised more than $50,000 during its first “Teeing Off On Cancer” golf tournament.
But Kevin wanted to do more.
He decided there would be a concert. But it wasn’t going to be just any old concert — it would be the first concert held in Jordan-Hare Stadium. And he wasn’t going to settle for just any old singer. He wanted Kenny Chesney.
Earlon McWhorter, former Auburn trustee and vice president of market development for Chicken Salad Chick, said he “looked at Kevin a little bit strange” when he heard his plans. But, McWhorter figures, cancer only increased Kevin’s drive and passion to give back to the community.
“You don’t beat stage 4 cancer many times, so Kevin was a man in a hurry,” McWhorter said.
After a little work and negotiation, Kevin announced Music and Miracles Superfest is set for April 23, 2016, at a press conference last September. Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Sam Hunt and Old Dominion will perform at the Jordan-Hare concert. The organizers set a fundraising goal of $1 million.
Barclay Smith, Chicken Salad Chick Foundation director and inspiration for the “Buffalo Barclay” chicken salad flavor, said the concert’s themes will be “big dreams, high hopes and tremendous impact.” She hopes the message will do Kevin’s character justice.
“He had no boundaries,” Smith said. “He had no sense of ‘too much.’ He always felt like there was a way.”
Two months after the announcement, Kevin, Stacy and the children went to stay with family in Georgia for an early Thanksgiving celebration.
Kevin became extremely ill during the visit and was rushed to the hospital. It was far from the first time Stacy had to call an ambulance for her husband, but it would be the last.
There were just too many complications at one time, Stacy said.
Kevin slipped away, surrounded by friends and family, on Nov. 21.
These days, Stacy spends most of her time with her children. She believes her kids, and her faith, have kept her on her feet the last few months.
Grieving Kevin is going to be a long and tough road, but she knows she can do it. He taught her she can do anything.
“I always said he had slightly unreasonable expectations,” Stacy said. “He demanded excellence from everyone around him. Because of that, he got more out of people than they ever thought they could give.”