I know because I met the goateed charmer in his white linen suit on the Little League football field at Barcroft Park circa 1963, when he ambled out cane-in-hand to cheer his franchise-sponsored team.
But the food icon’s deeper Arlington connection goes back to the mid-1950s, when he journeyed here regularly to cook up the first D.C-area Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise.
The local entrepreneur was Jim Matthews, who launched Tops Drive Inn in 1953 and expanded to 18 eateries in the region. He did it on a $10,000 investment bet initially on the Sir Loiner hamburger.
In his privately published 1996 autobiography, Matthews tells of opening the first Tops at Route 50 and Glebe Road (now McDonald’s), offering emblematic “teletray” ordering by intercom from your car to which a uniformed carhop would deliver. With advertising on WEAM radio, Tops by 1958 was serving 200,000 customers a month, half of them teens.
Tops’ progress was monitored by Marriott-owned rival Hot Shoppes (which would compete with Pappy Parker’s fried chicken).
Around 1955, a representative from Kentucky Fried Chicken visited the Tops at George Mason Drive and Lee Highway (now a Capital One Bank) for a cooking demonstration of how to make things “finger-lickin’ good.” Matthews was unimpressed, preferring his staff’s chicken. But he heard the colonel was appearing at a restaurant show in Roanoke, so Mathews and his wife drove down and invited him to their room.
“I was still a bit dubious of the colonel,” Matthews wrote. “He had a very ruddy complexion and in those days, who wore a white suit and a string bow tie, moustache and goatee, and carried a fancy cane?”
They served him bourbon without knowing he was a teetotaler. And when Sanders explained the reason that test chicken had emerged as “a greasy mess” is that Matthews lacked sufficient BTUs in his gas range. So Matthews shook hands on a 90-day option for the KFC rights in Virginia, Maryland and Washington.
An artist created drawings of the colonel with the Tops boy mascot and the Washington monument reading, “I’m bringing something great to Washington.” Though Matthews buried the ads mysteriously in the back of newspapers, KFC took off – in the first weekend at eight Tops, he sold 10,000 buckets at $2.99 each.
“People knew who the colonel was real fast,” recalls my boyhood friend Jim Matthews Jr., the model for the Tops boy now a partner in a nightclub. Sanders was a frequent guest in his Bellevue Forest home. Both father and son tell the story of how Col. Sanders took an 11-year-old Jim Matthews Jr. in his Rolls Royce for a ride on Kentucky’s I-64. “Doesn’t your dad ever let you drive?” he asked the boy, whose driving experience then was limited to go-carts. He put him behind the wheel, and young Jim was nearing 100 mph before the colonel thought better of it.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, meanwhile, by 1963 had grown to 600 outlets, America’s largest fast food operation. “I can honestly say that Colonel Sanders and I have a great relationship,” Matthews wrote. Although Matthews heard him “really chew out others of his KFC family … never did he say an unkind word to me.”