With Nashville trio Rascal Flatts opening a restaurant at Station Square and Toby Keith almost opening one on the North Shore, it may not be clear that country stars lending their names to restaurant franchises is a tradition stretching back a good half-century. It kicked into high gear in the late 60's when several stars of that era got the franchise bug, mostly involving fried chicken. We'll explore some of these. It's not a comprehensive list. Buck Owens, Little Jimmy Dickens and others jumped on the bandwagon for a while.
Note: Johnny Cash, riding high in the late 60's with his top-selling Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums, was asked if he would jump into the fried chicken business. In typical renegade fashion, Cash responded, "You ain't gonna find my name on no greasy sack of s***!"
Beloved Grand Ole Opry comic Minnie Pearl (1912-1996), a college graduate from an affluent, educated Tennessee family, became the public image of a chain inspired by Kentucky Fried Chicken's success and attracted national attention. Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken opened in 1967, spurred by Tennessee businessmen with no food experience. They sold franchises like crazy, even started a chain fronted by black gospel great Mahalia Jackson ("Glori-Fried Chicken"), but through bad business practices (selling franchises became the profit center), and the executives' ignorance of the fast food industry, the venture collapsed in the early 1970s. Miss Minnie did well, but was deeply embarrassed about the failure
Arnold jumped in soon after Pearl did. Considered one of the smarter businessmen of the country singers in his time, he too opened Eddy Arnold's Chicken Shops in the late 60's. Locations in Nashville and elsewhere opened, but didn't last long.
HANK WILLIAMS JR.:
Hank Williams Jr. was still "Little Hank" to many of his daddy's fans (note the clean-shaven image in the ad) when in 1969, he opened the Hank Williams Jr. barbecue pits. This one didn't last either.
But his passion for food did. Today, his name appears on the Hank Williams Jr. Family Tradition Barbecue Sauces.
Opened by the Marriott Corporation in 1968, Roy Rogers (1911-1998) restaurants, with the Western legend's name and face prominently featured, became institutions around the country/ Eventually the chain went independent and thrived, but was laer sold and hit harder times in the 1990's. Today they're attempting a resurgence. The chain has six locations on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and 49 other locations.
This late 1970 ad demonstrates Roy's early involvement.
TENNESSEE ERNIE FORD:
The man who put the song "Sixteen Tons" on the map, the first country star with a weekly network TV show and took the first country music show to the Soviet Union, Tennessee Ernie Ford (1919-1991) was one of the best-known country entertainers of his day. Around the time of the Nashville fried chicken boom, Ford, who lived in California, announced this short-lived chain. The image of Ernie in the ad was drawn by the renowned caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
"Whispering Bill" Anderson, one of the top singers of the 60's (the nickname comes from his low-volume vocal style) was one of the great country songwriters of any "Po' Folks" became his third Top Ten single in 1961. Anderson is seen here performing the song soon after his 1961 Opry induction. Host T. Tommy Cutrer mistakenly introduces "Johnny" McCoy on harmonica, actually future Country Hall of Famer and Nashville A-Team session player Charlie McCoy. Anderson also named his touring band "The Po' Folks."
The founders of the Po' Folks restaurant chain, which opened in 1975, initially appropriated the name without Anderson's permission. The singer intended to sue but in the end, it turned out amicably. Anderson sold them the rights to use the song and became their longtime spokesman.
While the chain survived a 1988 bankruptcy, according to the restaurant's website , only eight Po' Folks locations remain. Anderson's relationship with them ended long ago.
Kenny Rogers co-founded Kenny Rogers Roasters with ex-Kentucky Governor and veteran KFC investor John Y. Brown. Like Bill Anderson and other stars, Rogers was prominent in the chain's TV ads like this one from 1995.
A year later, the chain was sold to a Malaysian corporation. Over time, its US profile gradually faded. The owners focus their efforts on the Asian market.
Despite a lot of hype, Toby Keith lent his name to Toby Keith's I Love This Bar and Grill, named for his hit single "I Love This Bar." Unfortunately, despite all the hype, the growth didn't last long. Judging from their website, it appears only three are still open.
The Pittsburgh location, located on North Shore Drive in the same building as the Post-Gazette, never even opened. The Tequila Cowboy Bar & Grill occupies the site. This coverage of the closing of the Folsom, CA location, comes from KCRA in Sacramento.
On a personal note, I wish Rascal Flatts all the best with their Pittsburgh location. I also hope the food is better than the Nashville Pop sludge they call "country music."