If the sight of Kenny Rogers doesn’t make you queasy, Kenny Rogers Roasters is the place for you. Beaming down from the walls of a New York City outlet, one of 258 such restaurants worldwide, are no fewer than 71 Kennys — a tennis-playing Kenny, a flag-waving Kenny, a gazing-into-the-distance Kenny, etc. And on this crisp November morn, a special treat: the arrival of Kenny Number 72. A three-dimensional, snakeskin-boot-wearing Kenny emerges from an idling stretch limo and swaggers into the restaurant.
”Something smells good,” intones the country star, whose belt-straining stomach indicates he’s enjoyed some fowl in his day. ”Something smells par-tic-u-lar-ly good!”
Could it be the steamin’ drumsticks? The new, juicy honey bourbon ribs? Or maybe it’s the sweet scent of publicity emanating from the restaurant.
Yes, Rogers’ floundering chicken chain is finally receiving a much-needed helping of pop cultural visibility. And it’s about time. Hatched in August 1991 by Rogers and friend John Y. Brown Jr., an ex-KFC honcho and former governor of Kentucky, the very concept is irresistibly kitschy, the very name a punchline, just like Twinkies or Cats.
Consider: On the Oct. 7 Tonight Show, Jay Leno ordered some meat from the corner Roasters — and the Gambler himself whipped it up. Then there’s the upcoming Terms of Endearment sequel Evening Star, in which Juliette Lewis plays a twangy Roasters employee. (”I liked the red and white uniform,” explains director Robert Harling.) And most high-profile of all was the gentle roasting given by Seinfeld‘s Nov. 14 episode.
In the show, Kramer hangs a ”Bad Chicken” banner to protest Roaster’s obnoxious, sleep-depriving neon sign. By episode’s end, of course, Kramer is an addict: ”I’m hooked on the chicken,” he sputters. That’s music to Rogers’ ears. ”It costs something like $1 million a minute to advertise on Seinfeld,” gushes Kenny’s look-alike brother Randy, the company’s spokesman. ”And we got 11 or 12 minutes for free.”
The bonanza never would have happened but for the odor wafting into Rogers’ nose as he glad-hands the staff and orders a barbecue beef pita sandwich. Earlier this year, a lawyer working upstairs from this very outlet, on Broadway between 71st and 72nd Streets — sickened by the perpetual smell of spinning meat — hung a ”Bad Food” sign out his window. That sparked heaps of media attention, an unsuccessful libel suit from the Roasters folks, and the curiosity of Seinfeld writers, who had already turned New York-based eateries like Tom’s Restaurant and the ”Soup Man” into epicurean shrines to rival the Cordon Bleu.
Last summer, Seinfeld staffers called Randy for permission to use the Roasters name. Not to worry. Randy was so jazzed by the idea, he not only provided unlimited free food but also sent a crew to the show’s Studio City lot to build an accurate Roasters set. Glad to milk some good out of the ugly lawsuit, he even organized his own company-wide Seinfeld party, complete with 51 televisions.