From its first “Howdee!” in 1968 to its last squawk in 1971, the tale of Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken is an odd bird.
The chain was the brainchild of John Jay Hooker, a gregarious Nashville attorney and politician. In 1967, Hooker and his brother and law partner, Henry, watched the skyrocketing profits of Kentucky Fried Chicken and thought, “Surely there’s room for another chicken in that pot.”
To match Colonel Sanders’ trusted visage, they teamed with Opry and Hee Haw star Minnie Pearl. “I figured the public would think it believable that her family had a good fried chicken recipe,” Hooker later said of the cornpone comedienne.
The Hookers sold stock in the new venture for fifty cents a share. Investors included some of Nashville’s most prestigious names – among them US representative Richard Fulton, publishing magnate Bronson Ingram and Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler (who gave a lot of free publicity to the restaurant).
And the Hookers sold franchises across the country by the bucketful. By February 1968, there were plans in place for over three hundred restaurants. Spin-off chains were announced, such as Minnie Pearl’s Roast Beef and Minnie Pearl’s Ice Cream Parlor. When the stock went public, it soared. Three months later, Minnie’s chicken chain was worth $64 million, at least on paper.
That there were only five actual restaurants in operation didn’t seem to worry anyone, least of all the Hookers. A more troubling question concerned the chicken itself. Amazingly, during the frenzied build-up, no one had bothered to figure out a recipe.
Consequently, no two Minnie Pearl restaurants served the same chicken. And with that hit-or-miss approach, a lot of that chicken didn’t taste very good.
Restaurants began to hemorrhage money. By summer 1970, half of the 250 stores in operation had closed. Franchisees scrambled to break leases. By the end of the following year, the last drumstick had been fried.
Hooker, long a distinguished Nashville politician, said he’s spent decades living down the debacle, while Minnie Pearl was embarrassed by the negative publicity right up to her death in 1996.