When I wrote my first book on futurism, I credited four men with my outlook on business: my Dad, Bob Berman, Joe Coates, and Mr. Jeff Washburn, the owner-statesman-artiste Grand Poobah of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Rutland, Vermont. I just learned today that George F. Washburn III died of a heart attack, and while I grieved immediately for his family, I beamed at what an amazing, hilarious, honorable, profane, wise and loving man I got the privilege to know.
I’ll just start with one of the most indelible images: in his original, tiny office (before the luxury expansion) he had above the calculators and order books and OSHA regulatory pamphlets a picture of himself, festooned with a sweet late ’70s/early ’80s manperm right next to COLONEL HARLAND SANDERS (ret.) down at the Mothership in Louisville. Oh yeah. He knew the Colonel. And dammit, this outpost of delectable fried poultry would be something the Colonel would love or nothing at all.
As near as I could tell, Mr. Washburn knew how to do everything The Right Way and gently, firmly insisted that you meet this standard. It started with him. He got there ahead of anyone else and picked up cigarette butts in his parking lot. He made sure the inventory of the stock was accurate. He inspected that chicken, dag nabbit. And then he got down to business.
From 1990 – 1992 I was, in the parlance of the day, a Bonehead, one of the sweaty adolescents with fanatical devotion to making some goddamn fine chicken, I’ll tell you what. And there was nothing more exciting than a Friday night at 4:45pm with JW at the helm. He was like a mix of Captain Ahab and Gen. George S. Patton, invigorated by the rumble of cars pouring in, the growl of the masses who just didn’t want to cook that night, and the frenetic dance of getting the PERFECT output of Original and Crispy and biscuits! Too much and it goes bad under the lights, too little and YOU’RE IN THE WEEDS.
These were his finest moments.
Anybody who worked in that kitchen knows I’m not really exaggerating. They can all envision that quiet at 4pm when all of a sudden BAM! Washburn would burst out of his office, his shirt half-untucked, a crazed look in his eye, and a random list of expletives aimed at everyone and no one and the fight to come. He’d kick open the back door, sniff the wind like a wolf, and look back at you:
“Do three. One Crispy. For now.” (That’s three racks of Original in the big cooker, one rack of Crispy in the open fryer.)
Then as the night raged he would careen from bow to stern, watching the flows of traffic, the sky, how much gravy was left, if we needed more soda cups. Information gathered and digested in a sweet science only he knew, he would power back toward us Boneheads and whip us into more Fryolated frenzy:
DO FIVE! TWO CRISPIES! HARD, MISTER! NOW! (expletive, expletive, scatological reference, insult) !!!
By the end of the night, it would all be back in placid order, like a ship cruising into safe harbor. Customers happy, drawers counted, uniforms sweaty. He did it this way for years.
He was good to his people. He was good to me.
He taught me things about life and management that I’ve always cherished. “Garland, your Dad runs a business. You probably will too. Let me just tell you, here’s how you avoid 70% of what wrecks businesses. Know what it is? Most guys, they see the business bank accounts swell up for the first time, and they buy an addition for the house, a sports car, and get a girlfriend on the side. They forget to pay the frigging taxes. Then the IRS comes and wants their cut. And they’re dead. It’s stupid. So don’t do that.”
He was right.
He watched KFC go through spasms and contortions as various corporations meddled with it. Changed the products. Bought into mediocrity. Believed in MBAs more than the Colonel. He told me that the only thing that made or saved a business was honesty, hard work, and lots of heart, from the leaders to the workers to the customers. No short cuts. Do something special. Do your work. Do it well. Treat people right. You’ll do great.
He was right.
And funnier conversations, I never had.
“GARLAND! COME HERE!” “Yes, sir?” “How old are you, Garland?” “Seventeen, sir.” “You’ve got it easy, buddy.” “How is that?” “You like girls, right? Well, let me tell you, you can plausibly imagine sleeping with women in a two to three year window. Fifteen to eighteen sound about right? That’s not much of the population. At my age, I can plausibly imagine sleeping with women in a 30 – 35 year age range. When I look around, GARLAND, DO YOU KNOW HOW DISTRACTING THIS IS???”
I’m 42 now, and this…resonates.
He was family first. He invited us into his family. He was an amazing role model. Still is.
Adieu, Mr. Washburn. And thanks.