Country music singer Kenny Rogers, who died Friday at the age of 81 at his home in Georgia, will be remembered not just for his award-winning music and his genre-spanning collaborations (including one with Wyclef Jean), but also his acting work, his photography, and his writing. Starting in the 1970s, Rogers established himself as a prolific American country icon, known for hits like "Lucille" and the Dolly Parton duet "Islands in the Stream."
But beyond his catalog of entertainment, Rogers' global legacy has also extended to food, through the rotisserie chicken chain that still bears his name all over the world. Rogers opened the first Kenny Rogers Roasters in Coral Springs, Florida in 1991 in a partnership with John Y. Brown Jr., the former governor of Kentucky turned former co-owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken who's credited with expanding the company. The goal of Kenny Rogers Roasters was to be an alternative to fried chicken, selling wood-fired rotisserie chicken and corn muffins instead. The restaurant-turned-chain was riding the rotisserie chicken trend of the 90s, which had enough competition that it earned usage of the phrase "Chicken Wars" long before the Popeyes chicken sandwich drama of today.
By 1993, Kenny Rogers Roasters had more than 100 locations across the United States and Canada, and the company had signed international development agreements for more stores in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and across Asia. "Kenny Rogers' worldwide recognition as an entertainer gives our restaurants immediate international awareness," John Y. Brown Jr. said at the time. In 1996, Rogers and the chicken chain were even popular enough to earn a reference in a Seinfeld episode titled "The Chicken Roaster."
The chain struggled with its American competitors. In 1992, Miami's Cluckers Wood Roasted Chicken filed a $10 million lawsuit against Kenny Rogers Roasters—which also advertised wood-roasted chicken—for copying its concept; that lawsuit ended in 1994, when Kenny Rogers Roasters bought the majority stake in Cluckers. At the same time, Boston Chicken, which became Boston Market in 1995, was also making a push into the rotisserie market, with 450 new stores planned for 1994 alone.
Amid all that competition, Kenny Rogers Roasters didn't stick—in the United States, at least. In 1998, the company went bankrupt and was sold to Nathan's Famous, the company known for its hot dogs, and Rogers was separating himself from the chain. It was sold again in 2008 to Malaysia-based franchising company Berjaya Roasters, which opened up locations across Asia. In 2011, Kenny Rogers Roasters closed its last branch in the United States, which had been in the food court of a California mall. If you're a young American, it wouldn't be surprising if you've never been to one, or even heard of the chain beyond the Seinfeld reference.
Though its American presence has been gone for nearly a decade now, Kenny Rogers Roasters continues to hold unexpected resonance around the world as a result of Berjaya's expansion. Today, the chicken chain has a presence in Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, and as of June 2019, Kenny Rogers Roasters still reportedly had 183 locations worldwide.
The idea of an American chain losing its footing in the United States but finding popularity abroad isn't uncommon. Founded in 1956, Mister Donut used to be one of Dunkin's top competitors in the United States, but after it was acquired by Dunkin' in 1990, most of its locations were converted to Dunkin' stores. Today, Mister Donut has one last American holdout in Godfrey, Illinois—but in Japan, the Mister Donut name is thriving, with over 1,000 locations.
And though Shakey's Pizza was the United States' first franchise pizza chain, with over 300 American restaurants by the late 1960s, it now lists only 51 locations in the United States, mostly concentrated in California. Meanwhile, Shakey's has become the Philippines' largest pizza chain, with at least 200 locations as recently as November 2019.
Similarly, the Mexican chain Chi-Chi's had 237 locations in the United States by 1986, but it closed its last American locations in 2004 following a bankruptcy filing after a hepatitis A outbreak related to green onions sickened over 650 people and killed four. Its American reputation hasn't stopped Chi-Chi's from heading overseas, however, and it now has a handful of locations in Belgium.
Struggling American companies can find better footing abroad for a few reasons, as Time noted in 2011 when Kenny Rogers Roasters was beginning its expansion into China. Being a Western brand can lend a sense of credibility abroad. Beyond that, a brand's baggage in the United States, whether it's financial failings or a food safety scandal, might not carry over internationally, creating a chance for a new reputation.
That blank state can come with caveats though. According to a 2000 report by the Japan Times, Chinese branches of Kenny Rogers Roasters—the first of which opened in 1995—had become a "haven" for the business lunch in China. Yet, a June 2011 focus group survey conducted by Berjaya in China found that participants didn't really know who Kenny Rogers was, despite his recognizable name in the United States.
Still, as of 2011, the company was hoping to leverage its international success into a return to the American market, though that hasn't quite come to fruition. The chain's future remains unclear: In late 2019, Berjaya was in talks to "dispose of a substantial stake" in Kenny Rogers Roasters' international business, according to The Edge Malaysia. For now, it's still going.
Rogers is gone, but all over the world, people are still carrying on his name, whether it's through his music, laughing at an unexpected reference in a Seinfeld episode, or through their nightly rotisserie chicken dinners. Just as Rogers sang in "The Gambler," the winding path Kenny Rogers Roasters has taken around the world is proof that "you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away."