Sunday, July 22, 2018

New York New York


It wasn’t all cocktail hours and bar crawls in New York in 1976 and 1977. Facing me was the seemingly Quixotic mission of turning around the worst of KFC’s five national regions. My new region was headlined by Metropolitan New York, but also included New York’s southern tier; the Tidewater area of Virginia, Columbus, Pittsburgh, a sliver of West Virginia coal country and one down at the heels city in Massachusetts. 229 company owned stores all told. Region One, anchored by its comatose 68 store NYC district, was the doormat of the nation by every measure; sales growth, profit and operating standards; the thing we called QSC, Quality, Service and Cleanliness. We possessed none of the above.

Just six years has passed since I had been demoted from being Director of Operations of Four n’ 20 Pies, a company I had co-founded, and had been banished to Queens to fix one ailing restaurant. When informing me of my fate my boss, Kurt Kornreich, told me, “I don’t think you’re a top guy.” Those words and the punch they delivered have stayed with me. Yet here I was, a wunderkind on his white horse, riding into New York to save the day.

My entrance on Manhattan’s main stage was an crowd pleaser that’s for sure. The day before I was to take over the market, Colonel Sander’s toured a handful of our Manhattan stores with Mimi Sheraton, the bitch goddess food critic of the New York Times. When she and the Colonel visited the unit on 6th Avenue between Greenwich and Waverly the Colonel came unhinged. The chicken wasn’t fresh. It was supposed to be pressure fried every two hours. You could tell long it had been sitting by its internal temperature which should hover around 170 degrees. That chicken hadn’t seen 140 since day before yesterday. But the gravy, God help us, was mucilage and Harlan Sanders was the original gravy Nazi. The gentleman from Corbin, Kentucky carried a silver tablespoon in breast pocket of his white suit for heaven’s sake. When he tasted the paste, he erupted into an expletive filled tirade which was faithfully recorded by Mimi’s able sword, I mean pen.

Her byline ran in the Times the next morning. And that very afternoon I was to host a press conference at the 21 Club to welcome the Colonel to New York. I couldn’t have wished for a more auspicious start. What does a 34-year-old pup say to Colonel Sanders, whom he has yet to meet, in front of 100 slathering jackals? Let’s just say he deviates from the script he wrote the week before and prostrates himself before the great man. “Thank you, Colonel Sanders, for pointing out our myriad shortcomings. Next time you visit you’ll be happy with the gravy.”

After the press conference when I was finally introduced to the Colonel. I said, “An honor to meet you, sir.  I’m sorry you had such a disappointing experience yesterday.” He paused a moment, looked me in the eye, touched my arm and said, “So you’re the new man. Good luck to you, sir. I know you’ll take care of it.”

When I accepted the promotion from executive vice president of Pewter Pot, the 22 unit coffee shop chain I’d been operating in Boston for three years, somebody in HR told me, “If you can fix that train wreck they ought to give it to you.” The situation was so dire that nobody thought it could be fixed. My calculated risk was the third in a ten-year foray into fixing broken restaurant chains. If the company was on its last breath, I figured, the easier it would be to turn around and look like a star. It worked most of the time. 

The lynchpin of the whole deal was obviously New York. If I couldn’t fix New York it was game over.

As in three earlier turnarounds, the first thing we did was the thing that didn’t require a brain. We spruced up the stores so that they were places you’d want to work, maybe even be proud of. We called it “Paint Up-Fix Up” and it wasn’t much more than that. They weren’t big dollar improvements, certainly, but it was enough to provide a working environment where we could require performance. It meant that we could plausibly convey our expectations for food quality, store cleanliness and service. We came to lead the nation in all.

After we completed the rudimentary paint-up fix up and had made our expectations clear, we held rallies with every employee in our New York market in attendance. The rallies were held in the auditorium of the New York Hilton and featured high end audio visuals including the television advertising campaign we were about to launch. Glossy TV ads and big sound always get the audience going. 

Because we needed to drive traffic into our improved stores we blitzed the market with the famed “Buck a Meal Deal.” That’s one piece of chicken, mashed potatoes and a biscuit for one single dollar. Thank you very much. It didn’t pretend to be elegant, but it rang the cash register and gave us some breathing room. But the Buck a Meal gambit almost cost me my job. I had acted unilaterally on the promotion as I was prone to do and Tom Frank, KFC’s senior VP of marketing, gave me a proper dressing down despite its success. I told him that I thought that kind of call was within my purview. He grudgingly accepted my apology saying that, “If I thought you knew better I’d have you fired.” I may or may not have known better. Managing up was never my strong suit.

The sexier and equally true story of the Miracle on 42nd Street was the first ethnic advertising ever done at KFC. Contemplate that for a moment. You have a product that hews sharply to the black and Spanish communities and you’ve never acknowledged their existence except to put your stores in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the South Bronx and Harlem. The “inner city” stores were operated to an entirely different and far lower standard than Midtown or suburban locations. A wall separated the customer and the customer service worker, a wall with a bulletproof glass window and what appeared to be a bank teller mechanism. I had them removed immediately.

My two area managers in Harlem, one black and one Puerto Rican, packed heat. Street punks with a capital P. When I called them in to my Herald Square office to inform about our new rules of engagement they responded with unsuppressed giggles. I didn’t miss a beat, “You are fucking fired. Give me your gun and badge.” Well, maybe not the second part.

With a modicum of momentum under our belts, we introduced two new marketing campaigns in rapid succession. The first, “Welcome to New York” was television commercials aimed at the black, Hispanic and Jewish audiences. They were simple confections which featured likeable Hispanic, black and Jewish women welcoming the Colonel to New York. The Hispanic one was actually in Spanish. We were really welcoming New Yorkers back to KFC with the Colonel as a beacon of finger linkin' goodness.

But we really hit the big time when we hired a spanking new, black owned advertising agency, Mingo Jones and Guilmenot, to develop a major campaign for us, one that went national after its epic success in New York. Frank Mingo, the first black vice president and account executive at McCann-Erickson where he managed the Miller Brewing account, was 36, Carolyn Jones and Richard Guilmenot both former vice presidents of BBD&O were 33 and 29, respectively. The 6’6 Mingo had a creative vision as imposing as his stature. Frank was a great storyteller with a profane streak. I recall that one time when he referred to someone he didn’t like or trust as a “jamf.” I asked him, “What the hell’s a jamf?” He replied, “Jive ass motherfucker.” A bullshitter. Frank Mingo wasn’t one.

KFC had been running a yawner of a national campaign “It’s so nice to feel so good about a meal” and Mingo, supported by copious research, concluded that KFC with New York as its test piece needed to get back to promoting the product itself. So, we employed billboards featuring Gladys Knight’s 1,000-watt smile and radio commercials where she sang our new slogan, “We do chicken right.” Between 1977 and 1980 KFC’s New York sales increased by 70% and KFC adopted the theme for its national campaign.

By 1981 Mingo Jones, Guilmenot had left the firm, was the second largest African American owned advertising agency in the country. Sadly, Frank Mingo died in 1989 at 50 and Carolyn Jones in 2002 at the age of 59. Guilmenot has a consulting firm on Long Island. He’s 70. Jesus, we were young. And I'm still ambulatory.

After the success in New York and throughout the region I was offered the presidency of KFC’s Mexican fast food chain Zantigo. I turned it down the twice. I knew I had a good thing going, the number one region in the country by wide margin, an idyllic home in the perfect New Canaan, Connecticut and the autonomy of distance. I would soon learn how key that is. First, Jim Willey the president of KFC, tried to sell me on the promotion and, though I liked Jim and saw him as something of a mentor, I demurred. Then he told me if I took the job I’d be the next president of KFC. I declined again. 

No is no until it isn’t. I was summoned to Santa Barbara by Hicks Waldron the president of Heublein, KFC’s parent corporation. There on a terrace in Montecito overlooking the blue Pacific the persuasive Waldron said, “I need for you to do this.” It sounded more like a command than a request. I said "Yes.”

It was not a stellar career move. I found myself at loggerheads with senior management over the strategic direction of Zantigo from the get go. And, though our numbers were astounding, and we received the best qualitative evaluations in the history of KFC, Willey died, and I did not become the next president of the company. That was a drunk named Bill Reidy.

I went back to Boston to start Pizzeria Uno. Zantigo was sold to Taco Bell within a year.



4 comments:

Daryl Black said...

This is a great explanation of your life in the world of restaurant rebuilding and corporatocracy. Quite impressive and a fascinating read. Looking forward to the next chapter...

Terry T. said...

I agree with Daryl, made me want to hear more about the old days of Steve Immel. I learned a lot more than I ever knew before. Now I have a better understanding of why you are such a high end foodie... No bologna sandwiches for you! Keep up the great storytelling. On this end we'll continue to try and distinguish fact from fictional fun. Not that you'd ever do that, but...
Any photos around of you and the Colonel? Encore.

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