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On a recent Monday around dinnertime, Michael Peterson steps up to the cash register of a restaurant on Good Hope Road SE and orders several intricate combinations of chicken wings and side orders for himself and his family. As he pays up, Peterson, in dress pants and a silk shirt, asks the cashier, “This still KFC, right?”
Actually, no. On July 17, the Anacostia location of KFC—the abbreviated tag the fast- food chain adopted in 1991 to emphasize that it served more than just fried chicken—reverted to its maiden name: Kentucky Fried Chicken. After listening to customer input, KFC decided it was “fried with pride,” says national spokesperson Bonnie Warschauer. In addition to reclaiming its Southern-fried heritage, the Anacostia store has been redesigned, according to a company press release, to “reconnect with the neighborhood.” The new template includes un-KFC-like touches such as red leather booths and oil paintings of jazz musicians and dancers. According to Suzette Hampton, assistant manager of the Anacostia store, KFC calls its extreme makeover campaign “WIN CITY.” “In the name of increasing business, the aim was to win the inner-city back,” she says.
In addition to the Anacostia location, KFC has just opened two stores based on the same template in Cleveland; a new one in Detroit is in the works. If the look is successful, it may well be implemented in the chain’s 857 locations in what KFC brass calls “under-served” neighborhoods. Warschauer explains that the company chose the Southeast location because it had lots of customers who were looking for new things and plenty of nearby competition from a McDonald’s and a Popeye’s. Although Warschauer, who’s based in Kentucky, is unfamiliar with the term “Anacostia,” she emphasizes that the neighborhood’s residents are “so proud that this is in their neighborhood. It’s a beautiful spot.”
A little more than a week after the store’s grand opening (which featured a gospel choir and a cameo appearance by Chuck E. Chicken, the chain’s mascot), Peterson and his fellow Anacostia neighbors are still feeling out the new Kentucky Fried Chicken. Inside, deep-blue lamps hang over each table, the walls have been painted blue and gold, and the tables are made of two-tone blonde wood. Outside, Colonel Sanders, the founder of the chain, has been booted off the marquee in favor of what Kentucky Fried Chicken calls “a new interpretation of the world famous bucket.” With its frothy curlicues, the image looks like an impressionistic version of a package of McDonald’s french fries.
Like any good critic, Mel Tupree, a customer who lives a mile away, has been to the store about six times since the re-opening. “It has a modern, art-deco feel to it,” he says.
But Tupree says he was also shocked by the redesign and believes that it’s a sign that the neighborhood will be gentrified in 10 years. Fueling his fears is a glossy photo spread in one of the entrance hallways. Celebrating Colonel Sanders, it culminates in an image of a white mother, father, and two children waving American flags. Next to this spread, there’s a sign that says, “As a team of diverse, committed individuals, we reflect you—the community we serve.”
To reflect—and connect with—that community, Kentucky Fried Chicken installed a “free interactive music system” featuring Anacostia’s favorite musical genres: “classic soul, urban adult, urban beat and nujazz.” But this evening, no one seems to notice the fixture on the wall, let alone know what nujazz is. The interactive music machine, also known as a jukebox, isn’t telling: A recent storm has rendered it semi-kaput. It still plays songs (the selection is heavy on Al Green), but only after the manager resets it with her special key. So, for the time being, the free interactive music system’s primary function is to flash images of Colonel Sanders, a bucket of wings, and a rolling pin on its shiny touch-screen interface.
Kentucky Fried Chicken is also debuting an updated menu. “We have a lot more menu items that relate to the inner city,” Hampton says, suggesting that Southern specialties such as smothered chicken, candied yams, and skillet corn will appeal to Anacostia’s predominantly black residents. But the most curious addition is the new spicy candied apple sauce. An advertisement for it features a brilliant red upside-down apple on a stick. The apple seems suspended in purgatory: It has sprouted enormous chicken wings that resemble the plumage of angels, but stylized devilish flames lap at it from beneath.
But before KFC tackles theology, it has to iron out its new image. The store’s boldest claim is that its redesign (based on input from a focus group) will turn Kentucky Fried Chicken into a “destination restaurant for all occasions.”
The store hasn’t quite scored this title yet. An informal poll of about 20 dinnertime customers reveals that almost all of them live or work inside a five-block radius. And, despite the concerted effort to create a hospitable sit-down environment, almost all of the restaurant’s customers, including Tupree and Peterson, are picking up or driving through.
But there may be hope. Latoria Coleman, who works for a Georgetown vet, has rushed here after work to check out the new store. Normally, she’d be heading home by bus and Metro to Arlington, but she’s made an hourlong detour. She explains that she used to live in the neighborhood and was tempted to visit the remodeled KFC by a friend who raves about it. “It looks more like a restaurant than a carry-out place,” she says, although she herself plans on carrying out her food.
Clutching almost $25 worth of wings and sides, Coleman walks out into the pouring rain to wait for the bus that will take her to the Metro that will return her to Arlington. Her curiosity satisfied, she says, “I don’t think it’s gonna be worth it to come back here anytime soon.”CP