Lexington's loyal to its homegrown fast-food chains

ssloan@herald-leader.comSeptember 17, 2012 

Lexington likes its drive-throughs.

A recently released study suggests 30 percent of the city's population visited fast-food restaurants at least 20 times monthly in 2011.

That ranked Lexington seventh nationally in the Quick-Track Study conducted by California-based market research firm Sandelman & Associates.

President Jeff Davis said Southern cities generally rank highest because fast-food chains have grown at a time when the nation's population has moved into more of the South and Southwest. As neighborhoods spring up, fast food surrounds them, and "they offer more options and they're handier," he said.

Lexington also may rank high, he said, because of its history of being home to the headquarters operations of fast-food companies.

"You do get the local favorite, and you have the high distribution of the local player," he said. "That has a huge impact."

Here's a look at a few of the fast-food chains that have called Lexington home over the years. Not among them, which may surprise some, is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Its roots trace to Corbin, and the chain has since been headquartered in Shelbyville, Louisville and a stop in between in ... gasp ... Nashville, Tenn.

Fazoli's: Cod crisis leads to pasta place

Lexington connection: While Fazoli's is considered in the industry as more of a fast-casual restaurant than fast-food, the chain was started in 1988 by Long John Silver's owner Jerrico.

"There was a cod crisis in the late '80s," recalled Fazoli's CEO Carl Howard. "They were worried about the viability of Long John Silver's as a brand.

"Some members at the time were saying, 'Pasta grows, so we won't have to worry about harvest ever again. Let's take some of our locations and test a pasta concept.'"

And Fazoli's was born. The brand has been sold a couple of times since but has maintained its headquarters in Lexington since its founding.

Restaurants: 216 with 127 owned by the company and 89 by franchisees.

Trivia: The Fazoli's name wasn't the founders' first choice. The chain began as Gratzi's, but "that couldn't be trademarked nationally, so they changed it," Howard said.

Long John Silver's: City served as test market

Lexington connection: James Patterson, who later went on to found Rally's in Louisville, started the chain in 1969 with a restaurant on Southland Drive.

In 1975, he sold it to locally-based restaurant company Jerrico. The Long John Silver's chain eventually sought bankruptcy protection in 1998. The brand has changed ownership multiple times since and saw its headquarters operations moved to Louisville in 2003.

While it was based in Lexington, though, the city "played a central role in all food testing," said CEO Mike Kern. "If they were testing a new product or new piece of equipment or consumer promotion, Lexington was always the test market."

Restaurants: 1,300. All are owned by franchisees.

Trivia: As the company quickly grew in the 1970s, the headquarters operations lacked space to bring in franchisees and store managers for required training. Kern said the company used Transylvania University's facilities for what was deemed "Cod College."

"It was quite a rigorous program, going at least a week or maybe more," Kern said.

A&W: Root, root root for the home chain

Lexington connection: While the first A&W opened in 1923 in Sacramento, Calif., the chain's headquarters made its way to Lexington from Michigan after it acquired Long John Silver's in 1999.

"Long John Silver's was the bigger brand, and Lexington was much more central to the bigger geographic footprint," recalled Long John Silver's CEO Mike Kern.

Like Long John Silver's, A&W eventually moved to Louisville, too, with its acquisition by what is now Yum Brands.

But the latter sold both brands last year, and A&W opted to return its headquarters operations to Lexington.

CEO Kevin Bazner, who had worked at the previous headquarters in Lexington, said he was impressed by the work force and had maintained a residence in the city.

Restaurants: Around 1,060. All are owned by franchisees.

Trivia: A giant bronze likeness of A&W's mascot and spokesbear Rooty the Great Root Bear sits in the lobby of its headquarters at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research Campus along Newtown Pike.

Scott Sloan: (859) 231-1447. Twitter: @HeraldLeaderBiz

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