Does the Lord look favorably upon Kentucky Fried Chicken?
You certainly could have gotten that impression Sunday night if you happened to wander into the Concert Hall of the Kennedy Center, wherein the final hosannas of the Kentucky Fried Chicken Gospel Music Competition were rising to the rafters.
While most corporate sponsors of performing arts events generally seem happy to have their names mentioned in fine print, this humility oft preached in the Good Book was decidedly not in the consciences of the folks responsible for uniting poultry with praising the Lord.
Forming a veritable Cinerama-sized halo above the heads of the singers were the words Kentucky Fried Chicken in letters 15 feet tall, repeated twice, all but obliterating the pipes of the Concert Hall's mighty organ. Again, the words cried out in smaller letters near the feet of the singers. And again, twice, off to the left and right of the main banner. And again, twice, on the podiums placed stage left and stage right. And again, 12 times, across the stage apron . . .
And who knows how many in the audience were cooling themselves with fans, each of them emblazoned with the message "Kentucky Fried Chicken Salutes Gospel Music." (Actually not many; if the Kennedy Center knows how to do one thing really well, it's keep the air conditioning going full blast.)
This ingenious idea of blending the sacred and the profane, and turning the Concert Hall into an approximation of a Baptist Church, might never have occurred if Washington weren't such a hotbed of competition among merchants of fast-food poultry. More than $25 million annually is spent here on fried chicken, and the purveyors of the "finger lickin' good" variety found themselves with a little problem.
To wit: Kentucky Fried Chicken has all but vanished from the public consciousness in the Washington area, more specifically, from the "middle Atlantic region," in the words of Clara Lamkin, KFC's director of public relations. For the past several years, the brand made famous by the late Col. Harlan Sanders was not sold through its own outlets, but rather through Gino's, a now-vanished fast-food hamburger emporium, where "it was really a side item," says Lamkin.
When Gino's was purchased by the Marriott Corp., most of its outlets were converted to Roy Rogers, which sell their own brand of fried chicken. KFC bought back about 29 fast-food locations in the Washington-Baltimore corridor, and converted them into the old familiar Kentucky Fried Chicken depots, with the visage of the Colonel smiling down from plastic panels and the big red-and-white buckets sitting atop flagpoles.
But in the four or five years since KFC disappeared as a presence in the fast-food market, plenty of other outlets sprang up, including Popeye's, Bojangles and Chicken George, a black-owned enterprise. All three have been competing heavily in the black community by selling chicken that is spicier, and by offering dishes like collard greens and sweet potato pie.
Which presented a big problem for Louisville-based Kentucky Fried Chicken: how can you quickly make an impression on the black population of Washington and Baltimore, which purchases a great majority of the fried chicken sold in the area?
"The Gospel Music Competition was really an idea that came out of the public relations department at KFC," says Lamkin. "We felt that we needed to get reacquainted with the black community. We felt that gospel music was a good way to get back in touch with black families, which is an important market segment for us. We hope to build up to 450, 500 stores in this region, which extends from Newark, New Jersey, down to Atlanta, Georgia. We're planing to have a competition down in Atlanta. I wouldn't say we're doing this because we're afraid of places like Popeye's; we consider them competition, and competition is a challenge. This is a community relations project."
Kentucky Fried Chicken approached the Washington-based National Coalition of Black Church Musicians to coordinate the project. "We made an appeal through the churches for tapes, and chose 115 groups for personal auditions," says executive director Whyethia Knight. "Then we held a round of competitions at five different churches and came up with eight semifinalists. The only condition was that the groups or individuals couldn't be earning a living for singing professionally, and that they had to be sponsored by their churches. Then we approached the Kennedy Center," where negotiations were handled by Archie Buffkins, president of the Center's Committee on Cultural Diversity.
"What we saw here," says Buffkins, who holds a PhD in music composition from Columbia University, "was an opportunity to expand what we're doing for the black community by allying ourselves with an existing entity. I wanted to have the Center sponsor a symposium on gospel music, and this seemed to be a step in the right direction. I just hope people don't make some novel association between fried chicken and gospel music. We had some problem here with the Kool Jazz Festival because people felt that we shouldn't be endorsing cigarettes. The connection is not the product; I think in terms of corporate sponsorship, of the corporate element trying to go into a partnership with the community, I hope not only for a profit."
But perhaps for some profit. Should the Lord take Kentucky Fried Chicken under his wing?
"Why not," says Pastor Jesse L. Reaves of the Fourth Street Seventh Day Adventist Church, which sponsored soloist Stephen Willis, and earned $750 when the singer placed second in his division. "They put up the money and they should get something in return. It was an excellent form of advertising, and nobody would have done it if they weren't offering the prizes. I think Kentucky Fried Chicken did all right for themselves."
Bishop Ralph Green of the Free Gospel Church of Christ, which sponsored the second-place Ralph E. Green Ensemble, agrees. "After all, a lot of times that's where we eat dinner."