LAUREL – Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has more than 4,000 franchises in the United States, and Vic West was recently named the KFC top franchisee and honored with the People Encouraging Talent Excellence (PETE) award (named after Pete Harman, the first person to buy a KFC franchise).
West Quality Food Service opened its first franchise in Laurel in 1967 after West and his wife, Louise, struggled to raise the $15,000 start-up money. Today, West owns 72 restaurants in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Tennessee and employs some 1,800 people. Three generations of the family – grandfather, four sons and two grandsons – are involved in the business.
“This is a good concept and I enjoy it very much,” West said. “My destiny was to work for myself. It`s been wonderful to work with my children and grandchildren.”
“But I’ve worked nine days a week and 29 hours a day. The owner of a food establishment has to work hands-on so that he can be sure that it runs the way that it ought to be run. A food operation has to be run properly every minute that you’re open.”
In this business, you can`t go back and correct your mistakes, West emphasized. If a customer doesn`t like what he eats at your place, it leaves a bad taste in his mouth, literally, and he`s not going to come back.
He said that the first year, he didn`t take a single day off.
West heard of KFC for the first time when his wife returned from a visit to Florida raving about the fried chicken she had eaten. Later, the entire family drove to Ft. Walton Beach and, on the way, they stopped at a KFC.
“I got a bucket of chicken with biscuits and a drink for everybody, six people, for less than $1 a person,” West said. “I told Louise that this was the best chicken I ever had and that if I could get a franchise, I’d quit my job and go into business for myself.”
Quitting his job meant giving up 21 years of working for the telephone company. Louise took some convincing but, finally, West contacted the master franchise holder for the Pensacola region and started the process of trying to raise the $15,000.
After securing the money and buying a franchise, West trained himself and learned as much about the business as he could.
“But, once we opened, I realized that I didn`t know as much as I thought,” he said. “Back then, KFC had its headquarters in Nashville and they had a school there and I said to my oldest son, ‘I can`t leave, can`t get off, so I want you to go to Nashville and learn all you can.'”
West added that his son learned enough about procedures at the school to make things run much more smoothly.
That first year, West`s oldest son had dropped out of Jones County Junior College and gone to work part-time at a department store.
“Our second day, he dropped by after work and asked me how it went the first day and I said that we were pretty busy and that I could use his help,” West said. “He went down to the department store to quit and in 30 minutes he was back, ready to go to work.”
West`s second oldest son was a senior in high school and worked part-time at KFC from the beginning.
“The boys kept hanging around and I said, ‘Well, one franchise isn`t going to feed us all.’ I was in the process of opening a second location in Laurel.”
The master franchiser for the Pensacola region had just finished building and equipping a location in McComb but didn`t have anybody to run it, so he leased it to West.
“That was at 23 months and I had three franchises already,” West said, “and my sons to help run them. And then, well, number four happened, number five, and we just kept expanding. And we built up a corporate structure early on.”
“I ran things out of Laurel and visited about 15 locations, traveled 100,000 miles a year. I let my older sons manage local franchises so that they could learn the business with hands-on experience.”
West added that he`ll be 80 in August and that he still goes to work every day.
“When you buy a franchise, it`s usually for 10 years, and then you can renew it for another 10 years,” West said. “At the beginning, I bought the secret recipe. It was in a bag, with all the secret herbs and spices, and all we had to do was to mix it with flour and make the batter for the chicken. Back then, there was only one kind of chicken.”
West also own`s Vic`s in Laurel, a restaurant that has no connection with KFC.
“The majority of people go through life without enjoying what they do,” West said. “I’ve lived and breathed chicken. I still love chicken and still eat it regularly.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at email@example.com.