5 Country Stars Who Got Fried in the Food Business
By Bill DeMain
1. Minnie Pearl's Fried Chicken
In 1967, Nashville attorney John Jay Hooker convinced Grand Ole Opry comedienne Minnie Pearl that she could sell more drumsticks than Colonel Sanders. After all, Minnie Pearl seemed like the sort of lady who'd have a good family recipe for fried chicken. Unfortunately, she didn't. But that didn't stop Hooker from selling franchises.
Within no time, plans were in place for 300 restaurants and public stock was worth $64 million. Meanwhile, no one seemed worried that only five restaurants were actually operating and that no two franchises used the same chicken recipe. Regular customer complaints, combined with an SEC investigation into the company's accounting practices, meant that it wasn't long before the restaurants began hemorrhaging money. By late 1971, the last bird had been fried. Hooker spent decades living down the debacle, while Pearl continued to apologize to her fans right up until her death in 1996.
2. Twitty Burger
Singer Conway Twitty dreamed of a restaurant chain that would one day hawk Twitty Burgers—a hamburger topped with cheese, two slices of bacon, and a deep-fried, graham cracker-crusted pineapple ring. In 1969, Conway persuaded his friends to invest $100,000 in his cholesterol-rich scheme. But the Twitty Burger never found its audience, and mismanagement led to the chain's swift demise.
When Conway decided to repay his investors, he deducted the $100,000 as a business expense on his tax returns. (Another bad idea.) The IRS soon caught wind, and Twitty wound up in court. Lucky for him, he was assigned to Judge Leo Irwin, an amateur singer with a soft spot for country. Not only did Irwin allow Twitty to keep the money, but after he read the verdict, he sang a song he wrote entitled "Ode to Conway Twitty."
When singer Whisperin' Bill Anderson visited PoFolks in 1981, he had lawsuits on his mind. After all, the restaurant chain had swiped the title of his biggest hit and the name of his road band. But the owner's hospitality—combined with all the fried food—weakened Anderson's resolve. By the end of the meal, he'd agreed to become PoFolks' national spokesman. As Anderson did PoFolks commercials and even became a partner in several franchises, the chain's prospects grew. He even convinced his pal Conway Twitty to become an investor (apparently the Twitty Burger debacle didn't faze him). At its height, individual PoFolks restaurants were grossing $2 million a year. But careless expansion took its toll, and by 1989, PoFolks was headed for the PoHouse. The chain rebounded in 1991, but without Anderson. Today, a handful of restaurants remain, mostly in Florida.
4. Kenny Rogers Roasters
In a Seinfeld episode called "The Chicken Roaster," Newman gets Kramer hooked on chicken from Kenny Rogers Roasters. "The man makes a pretty strong bird," Newman says. True enough. Founded in 1991 by Rogers and former KFC owner John Brown, Jr., the Roasters' menu featured wood-fired rotisserie chicken. By 1995, the chain had grown to 350 restaurants worldwide.
While Rogers was an affable spokesman, he didn't know his brand. In 1997, on Late Night with Conan O' Brien, Rogers failed a blind taste test, choosing chicken from the NBC cafeteria instead of his own. That may have been a sign. The company filed for bankruptcy a year later, meaning that Kenny didn't know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.
5. Jimmy Dean Sausages
Jimmy Dean Sausage was a hit from its first sizzle in 1969. Most manufacturers at the time made sausage from old sows and chilled the pork before shipping it. But the country music star had a different vision. Jimmy Dean decided to use only top hogs and package the product while it was still warm. The tender, juicy result went on to gross nearly $60 million a year.
While running the company with his brother, Dean pitched his product on TV, singing of sausage "from the whole hawg, not just the leavin's." Amazingly, those leavin's didn't go to waste, either. The inner skins were donated to burn treatment centers, while the outer skins were fashioned into coats for Dean's spin-off company, Pigskin. Other spare parts were turned into cat food. But trouble soon surfaced in hog heaven.
The company expanded too fast, and unsophisticated accounting practices and manufacturing equipment couldn't keep up. When the stress started taking a toll on Jimmy Dean's health, he sold the company in 1984. Despite the change in ownership, Jimmy stood by his product and kept his job as pitchman for another 20 years.
This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.