Fast Food of YesterYear: Kenny Roger's Roasters

Monday, April 27, 2020

During the Corona Virus apocalypse, we all need a good laugh.  So when I saw a meme that made me laugh so hard, I stopped what I was doing and just HAD to show it to my wife.  Why show it to my wife?  My wife is a much larger country music fan than I am.  She grew up a fan of classic country and even enjoys the modern version that sounds more like dance club "auto-tune" pop music than country.  I only really know the biggest hits of the genre, and of course, that includes several from "The Gambler" himself, Mr. Kenny Rogers.

This meme (excuse the language, kids) inspired me to relive some memories and write this article.


Unfortunately, Kenny passed away recently on March 20, 2020.  I didn't want this to be one of the millions of articles that read like a biography for Kenny.  I'd rather it focus on something nearly all of us nostalgia nerds love... the fast-food restaurants of yesteryear.


So here is the story of Kenny Rogers' Roasters!

Probably most famous for being the focus of an episode of Seinfeld, Kenny Rogers' Roasters was a chain of chicken-focused fast food restaurants created in 1991 by investor John Brown, Jr. and, of course, Kenny Rogers himself.

Brown, the Governor of Kentucky from 1979-1983, was an early investor in Kentucky Fried Chicken and is credited with making "The Colonel" a household figure.  After selling his stake in KFC in 1971 for $285 million, Brown tried to strike gold for the second time, dabbling in several fast service restaurant ventures.  None achieved notable success.  After leaving politics, Brown pursued the chicken business once again.

When the first Kenny Rogers' Roasters opened in 1991 in Coral Springs, Florida, the menu focused on wood-fired rotisserie chicken and a small assortment of side dishes.  By 1995, the restaurant had expanded to over 350 restaurants nationwide, as well as Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  The menu grew as well, adding items such as turkey, pork ribs, and various desserts.


Kenny's main competition was Boston Chicken (now Boston Market), which focused on serving rotisserie chicken meals.  KFC was the largest fast-food chicken centric chain in the nation but had concentrated entirely on fried chicken until the rapid success of Kenny Rogers' Roasters when KFC introduced a line of roasted chicken it called Rotisserie Gold. 

In 1992, Clucker's Chicken, a small regional chain, sued Kenny Rogers' Roasters claiming the chain had copied its recipe and menu.  The lawsuit eventually faded away when Kenny's chain purchased a majority stake in Cluckers in August of 1994.  Funny how that all worked out.

Brown expanded the chain to a total of 425 locations, and annual sales had topped $300 million by 1996 when the chain was sold to the Malaysia based investment firm Berjaya Group.

Just two years later, in 1998, the company had failed drastically and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, where it was purchased by Nathan's Famous, Inc for $1.25 million.  By early 2000, the chain had dropped to just 90 locations worldwide, with only 40 in the United States.  In 2008, Nathan's Famous divested itself of Kenny Rogers' Roasters, selling it to their Asian franchisee "Roasters Asia Pacific, Ltd."  Roasters Asia Pacific is a company owned by Berjaya Group, the same company that had taken Kenny's into bankruptcy in 1998.


The final Kenny Rogers' Roasters in North America was located in Ontario Mills Mall in Ontario, Canada, but closed on December 31, 2011.  The 2008 purchase agreement between Nathan's and Roasters Asia Pacific allowed for Nathan's to continue selling Kenny Rogers Roasters branded items in select locations.  Nathan's flagship store on Coney Island, New York, continues to sell Kenny Rogers' Roasters branded chicken items as of April 2020.

Most Americans, myself included, assumed that the chain had gone out of business around the turn of the century, but the story for Kenny's is much more interesting than that.  In fact, the chain continues to flourish overseas to this day.  The chain has grown to almost 140 restaurants across Asia, with continuing expansion in Malaysia, the Phillippines, and, more recently, Southern China.

I was able to locate a 1994 Kenny Rogers' Roasters menu for all of you to enjoy!










As you can see, it leans heavily on the "Wood Fire Roasted" chicken.  I think if I was transported back to 1994, the thing I would notice most is the prices!  Look at those prices!  Today in 2020, you could easily double everything on the menu... if not more.  Just one of the many reasons that Yester-Year was so much better than today.

On one of my top 10 favorite episodes of Seinfeld, Episode 142 (S8E8), "The Chicken Roaster" featured Kenny Rogers' Roasters as the central storyline.  A franchise just opened across the street from Jerry and Kramer's building, and the giant neon red Roasters sign began illuminating Kramer's bedroom every night.  Kramers's sleep schedule becomes entirely disrupted, and he convinces Jerry to switch apartments.  Over the next few days, Jerry begins to take on Kramer's zany mannerisms while Cosmo calms down into his own version of Jerry.

Secretly, once moved out of his apartment, Kramer becomes addicted to the chicken.  In a personal favorite scene that features an often-quoted line in my house, Jerry finds his neighbor Newman ordering at his meal that sounds suspiciously like something Kramer would order.  When Jerry notices that Newman orders broccoli, he asks Newman to prove it to be his.  After popping a broccoli spear into his mouth, Newman spits it out, almost immediately shouting "VILE WEED!" 


   

   

Shortly after, Jerry sabotages the restaurant with George's fake Russian rat-fur hat (the B-storyline), shutting down the restaurant and with it the glowing red sign.  At the end of the episode, Kramer is in bed, enjoying a box of chicken when the neon sign goes out.  With a mouth full of chicken, he whimpers for Kenny.

For my own personal experience growing up, we had a Kenny Rogers' Roasters a few towns over next to the small 2 screen movie theater that we would occasionally go to.  I'm sure my parents purchased food from there several times, but, I only specifically remember going into that place once.  I can still remember all of the heavy woods and the brass handrails that were common to restaurants of the 90s.  I can even remember the plaid window curtains and that big beautiful neon light that illuminated the front window on that rainy afternoon after a movie. I think it was Ninja Turtles 3.  In my mind, it looked very much like classic Americana meets Dollywood.

As my Grandparents aged, they stopped cooking big Sunday meals and would often head to Boston Chicken after church ended.  I remember asking them to get Kenny Rogers' Roasters from time to time since it was just a few minutes further down the road, but alas, they were creatures of habit and never did.  Eventually, our local chain went under pretty quickly when the chain faced trouble.

To be honest, when it comes to eating chicken, I prefer a rotisserie-style chicken if I had to choose.  It's hard to find a good piece of fried chicken today, and most times, the chicken is soggy by the time you get it home, or it's just a cheap piece of bird with too much fat or gristle.  These days, nothing beats a rotisserie chicken fresh from Costco, but I'd love nothing more than the chance to go back to the '90s and enjoy a trip to Kenny's.


Based on the 1994 menu above, I'd order a 1/2 chicken with 2 sides.  I'd add mashed potatoes and gravy and mac and cheese as the two sides, because, who doesn't like comfort food? Usually, I'd choose the cinnamon apples, but when apple cobbler for dessert is only 99 cents...

What would you order, given a chance to go back in time?  Comment below!




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