Saturday, July 28, 2018

Top Ten and a Hat

The hat, July 29, 2018
It felt like we won everything in sight at the Top Ten Awards during the 1977 national convention in New Orleans. The top ten store managers, area managers and district managers from across the company were chosen based on sales growth, profit and QSC; Quality, Service and Cleanliness. "QSC, QSC, QSC" was the battle cry at KFC throughout my tenure. Our full court press to improve the customer experience arose from the realization the we had been tanking for years. No amount of marketing was going to right the ship unless guests wanted to come back again. There’s an adage that says that the repeat customer is the best customer. That little nugget puts the true back in truism.

The cornerstone of our big QSC push was unannounced inspections of all of our 1,000 company owned stores across the nation. The 100-point inspection was really tough, some said too tough. There was carping from the old timers who had mailed it in for, well, forever. Most of our middle managers were lifers who were mechanics who could fry the hell out of a chicken but couldn’t manage other managers if their lives depended on it. Most were hard drinking ex-college football players who had formed a University of Kentucky Boy’s Club at our headquarters in Louisville and in Detroit, Dallas, LA and South Florida. John Y. Brown, the former Kentucky Governor and previous owner of KFC hadn't helped. He didn't give a lick. Phyliss George's husband, the man who almost killed the Boston Celtics, was a slovenly con-man without a scruple to his name. Come to think of it, he had a lawyer fixer like what'shisname. 

KFC's death rattle meant that two new vice presidents replaced two neanderthals. Joe Johnston, a preppy thirty three year old from Tulsa took over Region Three in the center of the country and I inherited Charlie Rogers' Region One. Look up "good old boy" in your Funk and Wagnalls and you'll find Charlie's headshot. Really nice guy out of his depth.

Joe wore three button suits from Southwick and heavy starched Gant button downs. I wore fitted Italian 140s and too much hair. A little self-awareness would have helped. We were part of a Fortune 500 conglomerate not the fucking Cosa Nostra.

I remember the Red Carpet at the Windsor Court like it was yesterday. 

“Who are you wearing, Steve?” asked the host.

“I’m wearing Lubiam and Bruno Magli." The crowd went wild.

After a year Region One led the company with a 96-point QSC average across its 200 plus stores. The other regions scored in the 80s. When the QSC scores were combined with our sales and financial numbers the case could have been made that we had won all thirty of the Top Ten awards. As it is we won four of the top ten District Manager awards and would have won a fifth but Bill Roquemore, the District Manager in Columbus, had become a Regional Manager at Pizza Hut and he was denied his due. Jim Willey seemed embarrassed when he told me that Bill wasn't selected. “Anyway, this way we can give the other regions a chance.” Meh.

Our final tally was something like fifty-five percent of the awards from twenty percent of the stores. Hair or not.

On the night after the Top Ten Awards and a dirge of mind numbing speeches we staggered to the Old Absinthe House by way of the Acme Oyster House and Preservation Hall. We pounded adult beverages till the sun came up; we being Peggy and me, Bob and Jeanine Buxton from New York, Gary and Brenda McCain from Tidewater and Billy Genovese from Delsaco in Paramus. Delsaco, short for Delicious Salad Company, made our cole saw and book. As the clock ticked 3am a couple of cowboys ambled in from Central Casting. I made 'em for East Texas owing to their hats and brims. Hat crowns and brim shapes are as regional as a South Boston accent.

I exclaimed to nobody in particular, “Man, I want that hat.” “Which one?” Billy asked. “The brown one with the high crown. The tall guy.” I answered.

At that very moment the tall guy with the coffee colored lid went to the men’s room. Billy Genovese followed him in. I thought nothing of it till he came back to the table. “No luck. He won’t sell it.”

“You mean you tried to buy the hat right off his head? You didn’t need to do that.” What I meant was, “Next time I give you a job don’t come back empty handed.”

Don't cry for me, Argentina. Four months later a large package arrived at my Greenwich office. It was from Bob Buxton in New Jersey. When I opened the box, there was the hat. Well, not the actual hat from the Old Absinthe House, that would have been epic, but it was the identical twin of my beloved cognac New West by Bailey in the size of huge.

The hat in 1978

The hat in 1984
Bob, a long time horseman in central Jersey, had trailered a horse for the owner of Jack’s Barn in Farmingdale in trade for an exact copy of my treasured sombrero. I still have the hat and the pictures to prove it. I’ve changed the crown over the years. I learned to steam cowboy hats when I was ten. I did not learn, however, to make it a huge plus. Who knew that heads and feet continue to grow while the rest of us shrinks?

Last thing I heard Bob Buxton is training horses in Oklahoma and I am not a cowboy in Taos, New Mexico.


Terry T. said...

My hat's off to you bub, if I had one that is. Nice story about the glory days. And it is quite a hat.
Congrats on all the awards and for cracking those birds into shape. TT

Blacks Crossing said...

Quite the tale of food, kudos, and wonders of life. Glad you got "the hat" out of the deal. It is a keeper. So is your writing, so keep 'em coming, "not a cowboy in Taos."

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