Kenny Rogers Roasters

In 1991, singer Kenny Rogers got together with a gentleman named John Y. Brown Jr., who was one of the main builders of the KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) chain, and they launched a chain of “healthier” fast food restaurants. The premise was that America was turning away from fried chicken and would opt for Kenny’s wood-fired rotisserie birds and fresh, unfried side dishes. For a time, they did.

The first one of these I went to was in Las Vegas, secreted away in a failing theme park that had been built behind the MGM Grand Hotel. The park was near-deserted (and would soon be torn down) and when I wandered into the Kenny Rogers Roasters there, I think I was their first customer of the day…and it was 3:00.

I wish you’d seen that place because it was excessive, even for something built inside an amusement park in Las Vegas. It was like the temple for a religion that worshipped Kenny Rogers as Christ figure. There were posters of him and photos and blow-ups of newspaper articles and gold records and the Muzak played the same half-dozen Kenny Rogers records over and over and over. The lady at the counter told me she’d worked there for three weeks and already yearned to never hear “The Gambler” again for the rest of her life.

As it happened though, the food was pretty good. As new, less ostentatious Kenny Rogers outlets appeared nearer to my home in L.A., I began patronizing them and I usually enjoyed the chicken. Enough people did that the chain soon had 350 restaurants around the world. The one I usually went to was on Wilshire Boulevard, a few blocks east of Bundy. (When it went out of business, a succession of other fast food places inhabited the building. Last time I looked, it was a laundromat.)

Kenny Rogers Roasters were apparently on the downslide by 1998 when the company that owns Nathan’s Famous acquired the chain. Many Kenny Rogers stores became combo shops, also serving the Nathan’s hot dog menu, which caused the Roasters side to lose much of its identity. All of these closed. At last report, there was only one Kenny Rogers Roasters remaining in the U.S. — it’s in Ontario, California — though some items from its menu still pop up at other fast food restaurants owned by the Nathan’s people. The chain continues to flourish in Asia and the Philippines.

One factor which may have contributed a little to their demise was an appearance Mr. Rogers made in 1997 on Late Night With Conan O’Brien. He agreed to participate in a blind taste test, pitting chicken from one of his eateries against chicken from the NBC Commissary. To the delight of the audience — but perhaps not his shareholders — The Gambler made a bad bet and picked wrong. But then the whole enterprise was a losing wager in this country, I guess.

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