Roadside Relic: The Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia, a plucky outpost of Kentucky Fried Chicken
Col. Sanders was said to dislike the big bird, much preferring his own mug on a bucket. But the Big Chicken survives despite multiple threats to its landmark roost.
National Fried Chicken Day came and went without a cluck from me last month, but behind the scenes, The Retrologist was plucking away at this newsletter post — a profile of the Big Chicken in Marietta, Georgia!
This bucket-free Kentucky Fried Chicken on Cobb Parkway had long been on my bucket list, and I finally visited on a brutally cold morning last December. It was so cold I could only fire off a few photos at a time before running into the restaurant to reanimate my frozen digits.
Chances are, this location would have never made my bucket list if Col. Harland Sanders had gotten his way.
But before we get to that story, please enjoy a serving of a little historical context before digging into our main course. This famous corner of Georgia was once part of a peach orchard and later an outlet of the Zesto’s chain of ice cream stands (which still has outlets in the Atlanta area) and, for a time, was a Miss Georgia Dairy stand.
In 1963, S.R. “Tubby” Davis opened Johnny Reb’s Chick-Chuck-’N’-Shake, for which the towering chicken was built. (A Georgia Tech architecture student, Hubert Puckett, got the job of a lifetime when Davis tapped him to design the Big Chicken. He’s turning 90, and the Big Chicken is turning 60 with a big celebration on Sunday, August 13 at 2 p.m. thrown by the city of Marietta!)
Davis understood the marketing magic of roadside novelty architecture, realizing he could save big advertising bucks by taking the route of other roadside giants like the Big Duck! (This style of architecture is even known as Duck architecture!)
In 1966, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Davis sold the restaurant to his brother, A.T. Davis, who would run a location of his Davis House cafeterias here. The cafeterias were an early vendor of Kentucky Fried Chicken, back when the colonel’s “barrels of fun,” as the old jingle went, were sold in restaurants that affiliated with KFC and also offered their own cuisine. This location eventually became a standalone KFC.
It should come as no surprise that the irascible colonel — a ceremonial sobriquet, he never made that rank in the Army — wanted to see his own mug outside the store, not some big chicken.
The colonel, I should point out, was not a man to be messed with, especially regarding signs. Long before Kentucky Fried Chicken even existed, Sanders, who ran a Shell service station in North Corbin, Kentucky, in the 1930s, had been involved in a deadly gun battle with a competing gas station owner over a sign.
The competitor kept painting over Sanders’ roadside sign (painted on a concrete wall) that pointed to the colonel’s gas station, and the matter was eventually settled with gunfire, leaving Sanders’ competitor shot and injured and Sanders’ colleague from Shell Oil dead. (The story is vividly told in an installment of the Business Wars podcast, below.) The competitor went to prison. Sanders went on to become America’s colonel! His service station doubled as a restaurant serving his fried chicken with his secret blend of herbs and spices. The rest is history.
The colonel, I will repeat, was not a man to be messed with. But in the battle between the Big Bucket and Big Chicken, the colonel lost. He was reportedly reassured when informed that the Big Chicken was a cash cow, and that it should be left as is.
This ad from September 1966, below, seems to suggest a compromise, with the colonel’s bucket standing (squawking?) in the shadow of the Big Chicken. (The ad makes the bucket seem taller, no doubt pleasing Sanders.)
The Big Chicken had become a beloved landmark, the very symbol of Marietta for some. The chicken has inspired art and song (a popular chorus is named after it). The goliath red rooster is commonly used in directions (turn left at the Big Chicken!) and is said to be a reliable beacon even for aircraft pilots.
The Big Chicken becomes more beloved with every passing year, and has survived additional brushes with death.
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