'Greatest' Chicken, No Boasts

June 21, 1994|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff Writer

Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks having been dealt with, the Greatest has his eyes on Kenny Rogers, Colonel Sanders and Boston Chicken.

Baltimore-based Muhammad Ali Rotisserie Chicken plans to open its first store in Silver Spring's City Place in August and in several other Washington-area spots later.

But unlike the bragging pugilist of old -- he once said, "it was hard to be humble, as great as I was" -- Mr. Ali and his Baltimore partner are downplaying their intentions and avoiding the limelight.

"What we would like to do is run our business very quietly and have what we do speak for itself," said Talib Rashada, a Baltimore food exporter who is the chicken chain's temporary chief executive. "Now it's just talk."

Mr. Ali was in Silver Spring last week for disclosure of the company's plans. But the announcement consisted of a brief written statement, and Mr. Ali asked that reporters not be called until after he had left, a spokesman said.

In an interview, Mr. Rashada said that the venture's partners want to concentrate on finding a permanent chief executive, building a management team and open ing their first few stores before expanding. The company plans to eventually operate nationwide.

The company is searching for a permanent CEO with substantial fast-food experience, Mr. Rashada said, adding that the outfit has "more than adequate" financing for its first five stores.

Mr. Rashada declined to disclose the identity of other partners or the source of Muhammad Ali Rotisserie Chicken's capital, although he described it as a minor venture for Mr. Ali.

The restaurant chain has a logo -- featuring a bee and butterfly, a reference to the Champ's self-described "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" boxing style. And it has a slogan: "The Colonel won't know what hit him."

Allen & Co. Export Inc., Mr. Rashada's Broening Highway firm, ships food to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries. It handles all exports to the area for Kroger Co., he said.

Mr. Rashada said he has known Mr. Ali for about 15 years. The restaurant idea was born last year at Mr. Ali's Michigan house, Mr. Rashada said, when he was telling Mr. Ali and wife Lonnie about some chicken he had eaten in Saudi Arabia.

The success and rapid growth of rotisserie chain Boston Chicken made it clear there was a market for the product, he said.

It took a year to fully develop plans and refine a recipe that uses 18 spices.

Mr. Ali's office said yesterday that he and his wife were traveling and unavailable for comment.

Mr. Ali is hardly the first celebrity to name a restaurant after himself. But while a famous name can generate press clippings and lure initial patrons, analysts said, long-term success depends on food quality and competitive prices.

"Marketing is important, but operations are most important," said Steven A. Rockwell, an analyst with Baltimore investment firm Alex. Brown & Sons Inc.

The competition is intense. KFC recently added a rotisserie line. Kenny Rogers Roasters and Boston Chicken are expanding rapidly in Maryland and elsewhere. Superior Foods of Maryland Inc., which opened its first Boston Chicken franchise two years ago, plans to have 20 in the Baltimore area by the end of next year, said President Richard Sharoff.

But that doesn't mean the ring is too full for another contender. Fast food is ubiquitous enough and chicken popular enough that a small, well-run chain could thrive, industry experts said.

If Mr. Ali's chain "is starting from the ground up, they've got a lot of hard work to do and a lot of R&D to do," said Theresa Howard, associate editor for Nation's Restaurant News, an industry weekly. "It's not as easy as people think. But once they get up and running, there's definitely a niche."

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