Era ends for county's KFC franchise

Owner ending longtime affiliation by selling, closing sites

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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photoScott Dickinson reminisces about visits from KFC founder Harland Sanders and growing up in the family business.

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It's the end of an era for a longtime Vancouver franchise that established the first free-standing KFC in Clark County and went on to build others.

Declining sales caused Dickinson Northwest Inc. owner Scott Dickinson to quit the business of serving Kentucky Fried Chicken, a job he's had since working as a child helper at his father's Hazel Dell restaurant, the long-closed Totem Pole.

The secret-recipe chicken was first introduced to the county in 1956 as part of a handshake deal between Totem Pole owner George Goodrich and KFC founder Col. Harland Sanders, who was just starting his national franchise.

In 1961, Goodrich sold the Totem Pole to Dickinson's father, Chuck Dickinson, who died in 2011. The elder Dickinson established more KFCs before selling the chain in 1996 to Scott Dickinson, who grew the business to a string of eight KFC restaurants, including seven in Clark County, before the recession hit.

Now, fond memories and valuable real estate are all that's left of the local KFC empire. Dickinson recently sold the Northeast 78th Street Hazel Dell KFC and the Orchards KFC at 5508 N.E. Gher Rd.

It's been tough, he admitted, transitioning to not being a restaurant owner.

"I have been responsible for KFC almost my entire adult life," Dickinson said.

The Hazel Dell and Orchards KFC venues remain open under the ownership of Klamath Falls, Ore.-based Argonaut Foods. Two other vacant KFC properties -- in Camas and Vancouver -- have been sold for redevelopment, including an East Mill Plain Boulevard location that is now a Starbucks.

Dickinson hopes to sell the remaining sites in Vancouver, Battle Ground and St. Helens, Ore.

"I have to admit, it was pretty emotional," he said of the closures.

Dickinson, 52, said he has no plans to retire. He hopes to introduce a new restaurant concept to the county after he sells off the remaining KFC sites. Selling the property helped keep him in the black, Dickinson said.

In June, a developer paid $570,000 for the former KFC building at 8302 E. Mill Plain Blvd., site of the new Starbucks. In September 2012, restaurateurs Hector and Maribel Pelayo paid $200,000 for the former Camas KFC building at 3545 N.E. Third Ave.

"If someone would have told me in 2007 what the crystal ball looked like, I'm not sure if I would have laughed or cried," Dickinson said.

Back then, business was booming for his chain of KFC restaurants, which primarily served the take-out dinner crowd. By 2008, the economic recession had turned regular customers into penny-pinchers who were more likely to cook at home. Among other trends, health-conscious eating, low-carb diets, veganism and vegetarianism may have also affected sales.

The fast-food chain's website features photos of golden-fried, original and extra crispy chicken, along with saucy nuggets and bites and hearty side dishes.

"The original concept doesn't really appeal to today's consumer," said Pam Lindloff, an associate vice president and retail expert with NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson's Vancouver office.

A meal at KFC could add up to more than 700 calories for two pieces of chicken, a serving of mashed potatoes, one biscuit and one helping of coleslaw.

On the other hand, "There is a level of customer base for that type of product," Lindloff said.

Hurt by downturn

KFC is owned by Louisville, Ky.-based Yum! Brands Inc., which also operates Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. The fried-chicken chain lost market share nationally to a string of chicken-themed restaurants, such as Buffalo Wild Wings, which has one local restaurant, in Hazel Dell.

But Dickinson said it wasn't competition or KFC's menu that caused sales to falter at his eight-restaurant chain. It was Clark County's profound economic downturn.

He knew it was time to get out of the business "when sales dropped off to the point where what worked before didn't work," Dickinson said. He started by closing his Fourth Plain Boulevard site, a restaurant on leased property.

"We closed the restaurants that were the lowest volume to begin with," he said.

Dickinson declined to estimate the number of employees affected by the closures, except to say the company saved at least 12 jobs that were moved to the remaining restaurants, now operated by Argonaut.

Lindloff does not foresee problems for Dickinson in selling the vacant sites, especially because all three former fast-food restaurants are equipped with drive-through ordering windows.

"They're (drive-throughs) very difficult to find," she said, adding that approval to build a drive-through building is also hard to acquire. "There are national, as well as regional tenants out there looking for drive-through opportunities."

KFC officials were vague about whether the company plans to replace the six restaurants lost to their chain.

"We are always exploring development opportunities for potential KFC franchisees," Rick Maynard, KFC spokesman, said in an email statement.

From 2008 forward, KFC has introduced a host of new products, including grilled chicken, which did little to boost sagging sales, according to the online magazine Adage.com, which analyzes product advertising and branding.

The analysis said customers received mixed-brand messages in 2010 when KFC launched its 500-calorie Double Down sandwich at around the same time it came out with a lighter-style grilled chicken.

The moves "contributed to a lack of consistent brand positioning and a distraction from KFC's flagship product -- both of which have hurt the chain and allowed competitors to creep in and carve out share," the analysis pointed out.

Eager to regain market share, KFC launched a test fast-casual concept called KFC Eleven this month in Louisville, Ky. The first restaurant marks a new direction for the fried chicken chain, with updated, urban-style decor and new menu items, such as flatbreads, salads and rice bowls available in flavors such as Sweet Orange Ginger, Caribbean Tango and Southwestern Baja. All are made with grilled or fried chicken, according to the Associated Press.

Maynard called the site an "innovation lab restaurant," or test site.

Company officials expect to finish analyzing the concept in 2014. A decision will then be made about future locations.

Memories of Colonel

Dickinson wouldn't say whether he is considering launching a KFC Eleven outlet in Clark County, although he does expect to introduce a new restaurant concept to the community, he said.

"I'll most likely go to some other quick service or casual concept," Dickinson said.

He called the liquidation of his restaurant chain a "surreal" experience after so may years in the business. Highlights of the period were the times he met and spent time with Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Sanders, who's often given credit for the whole concept of restaurant franchising.

"He would say, 'I'll show you how to make the world's best chicken and for every nine pieces you sell, you will send me a nickle,'" Dickinson said.

As an impressionable 16-year-old in 1977, Dickinson spent a whole day accompanying Col. Sanders, who visited the Portland-Vancouver area on a publicity mission.

"We visited Doernbecher Children's Hospital and handed out boxed lunches in downtown Portland," Dickinson said. "It was one of my most memorable times."

Cami Joner: 360-735-4532, http://twitter.com/camijoner;http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or cami.joner@columbian.com.