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Return of the golf-playing chicken

Chicken in the Rough was nearly lost to history, but aggressive action could wake up its future.


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Chicken in the Rough was nearly lost to history, but aggressive action could wake up its future.

As many entrepreneurs have discovered, sometimes a great idea can arise during
a bumpy ride.

For "Chicken in the Rough," a previously franchise concept that just passed its 70th birthday, the tough moment came when restaurateur Beverly Osborne and his wife, Ruby, were trying to eat a home-packed box lunch of fried chicken while driving along a bumpy Texas road.

A piece of chicken slipped from Ruby's fingers and she complained loudly, "This is really eating chicken in the rough." The grouse clicked with her husband, who realized that Americans could be persuaded to eat chicken in public the way they did at home: with their fingers instead of silverware.

Although the concept of grabbing a drumstick while dining out and eating it without a fork is commonplace today, it was novel in 1936, when Osborne was struck with the inspiration. This was nearly two decades before Kentucky Fried Chicken opened its first restaurant, and long before challengers like Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits and Church's Chicken appeared.

Osborne developed and patented a special griddle for frying the chicken, and a proprietary seasoning blend. With little money to spare, the married couple ended up selling Ruby's wedding ring to get startup funds, and opened a restaurant that sold fried chicken with shoestring potatoes and hot biscuits.

Franchising was another new concept, but was showing demonstrated success at the time for gas stations. Osborne began aggressively promoting franchising, and by 1950, the operation was grossing almost $2 million a year, with 250 franchised outfits.

Part of the attraction was the brand identity, which featured a golf-playing chicken, trying to get its ball "out of the rough." A small chick, serving as a caddy, often accompanied the frustrated golfer with a speech bubble that read, "I'll gladly be fried for Chicken in the Rough."

Change of hands

Although the company has a notable pedigree, there was a point where it almost died out completely. Osborne, being a serial entrepreneur, had embarked on a number of ventures, and began neglecting Chicken in the Rough, according to current owner Jack Carroll.

But the concept wasn't about to become a historical footnote. Carroll's father, Raymond, had been the first franchisee for the brand, and after he passed away in 1956, high-school-age Jack found himself driving to the funeral with Osborne.

The restaurateur told him that if he ever wanted a job, he had one, and Carroll took him up on his offer a few years later after a stint in the Army and working in the insurance industry. In the 1970s, Carroll suddenly thought of the golf-playing chicken and wondered why the brand wasn't growing. He called Osborne to find out how the concept was faring and found out it was languishing. Most of the restaurants were closed, squeezed out by larger franchises.

"I made an offer to go out and do something with it," recalls Carroll. "He told me that if I had that kind of drive, I should buy it. So, I did."

Carroll didn't consider trying to take on the mighty KFC by opening a string of restaurants—instead, he envisioned a way to expand the brand by approaching existing restaurants and letting them license the cooking method and seasonings. In return, Chicken in the Rough would also provide signage, special menus, and other branded merchandise.

Ironically, this was the same approach Col. Sanders used when he first started to sell his secret recipe and pressure cookers to restaurants. The ending to his story is better known—Kentucky Fried Chicken—or KFC— restaurants became a household name worldwide.

Not long into owning Chicken in the Rough, though, Carroll hit another rough patch. The patented griddle created by Osborne didn't pass muster with the National Sanitation Foundation, which had begun doing health inspections just as Carroll was trying to get up and running. "We were really stuck," he says. "It took some time to figure out what to do, and eventually we found a way to reformulate the recipe for deep frying."

Another challenge came just after that, when Carroll was told he had a brain tumor, and began to lose his sight. Three years of ill health and limited vision, followed by major surgery, kept Carroll out of the franchising arena. The little chicken concept that had made it through the Great Depression, World War II, the swinging '60s and '70s, and the Me Decade looked as if it might be cooked for good. But Carroll never lost sight of his larger plan.

Future on the Green?

Even as a high schooler, watching how much his father loved Chicken in the Rough, Carroll was confident that the franchise could thrive, given the right mix of care and attention. And if he and his wife, Marian, have their way, many more families will be partaking of the fried chicken, dipped in special seasoning.

"We want to bring this brand back, because we think it's a great product to sell," he says. "We're not looking to be KFC or Popeyes, that would be impossible. But we think there's a lot of opportunity at existing restaurants to sell a lot of chicken."

Currently, there are three restaurants that license the brand, with one in Port Huron, Michigan; one in Sarnia, Ontario; a third in Holyoke, Minnesota, with another expected to be serving up chicken soon in Sandstone, Minnesota. In addition to providing pre-dipped chicken, Chicken in the Rough gives franchisees a wide array of items to sell to nostalgia lovers, such as placemats and coffee mugs.

"We charge no licensing or franchise fee. We charge a royalty fee in a format titled the "CIR Brand Licensing Fee," he says. This fee is paid on a monthly basis and is a fixed flat fee. It increases each year over a 20-year period. Since it is a flat, pre-determined fee, the restaurant owner is able and encouraged to sell as much Chicken In The Rough as their market will bear and only pay the flat fee."

What would be ideal, Carroll notes, is for Chicken in the Rough to find a home at a major sit-down chain restaurant, such as Applebee's or T.G.I. Friday's, but until that happens, he's happy to simply get wider exposure and steady growth through independently owned restaurants and grills.

"We've got work ahead of us to build the brand again, and it's tough, because we're a small company," he says. "But, we've been through challenges in the past and overcome them, and we'll do everything we can to build a brand where people see the logo, and know they'll get great chicken."

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