Kentucky Fried Design

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 1, "Building South." Find more from that issue here.

Franchising, and consequently franchise architecture, have taken hold in America with a vengeance. 

Today, there are literally hundreds of franchised industries. You can eat in franchises, sleep in them, have your hair done, wash your car, get a new muffler, you can bottle pop in franchises, brew beer, buy a car or the gas to drive it, even do your laundry in a franchise. Just about anything that’s done by the average American on a fairly routine basis can be done in a franchise, and usually is. 

What is disconcerting about franchise architecture in the context of the South is that as it becomes increasingly ubiquitous, it spreads its blandness freely, creating environments oblivious to local traditions and regional flavor. As franchising continues to tap an unrestrained market in the South, it shrouds much of what is significant and unique in our visual landscape. We are victims of a paradox: while the franchise buildings themselves are harmless enough, their awesome presence invades and weakens the integrity of our Southernness. 

Franchising began shortly after the Civil War when the Singer Sewing Machine Company dotted not only the United States but much of the globe with franchised distribution centers. The real shove, however, came in 1898 when then-tiny General Motors decided to sell its automobiles through a network of enthusiastic and loyal franchised dealers. By the mid-’20s, we had Dairy Queen, White Tower, White Castle, A&W Root Beer, Howard Johnson’s and others. 

The architecture of franchising in this period differed markedly from that of the post-World War II boom. In the suburbs, the main form of freestanding commercial structure was the gas station. Because of both their substantial growth and their effect upon the sedate suburban scene, oil companies were pressured to make an honest effort at blending into a neighborhood. The English Cottage style, designed in 1925 by C.A. Petersen for the Pure Oil Company, was created specifically to overcome resistance to locating stations in residential areas. It had a steep roof in English blue tiles, tall chimneys with chimney pots, a bay window, shutters, flower boxes, and the letter “P” for Pure Oil monogrammed on the leaderhead of the downspouts. 

Franchised eateries were found in urban areas exclusively. They were small operations with six, maybe 10, stools per store. Design was not a major issue, although consistency of appearance and visibility were essential, since the customer lacked the constant reminder of television. In 1928, for example, the Howard Johnson’s chain installed its first bright orange porcelain enamel roof, a trademark that they have stuck by through a number of other major changes in their building. 

In the South, in 1932, the Krystal chain started creating white-clad urban storefronts, mimicking the White Castle/White Tower example almost to the letter. Located downtown, they did not have to contend with suburban design standards or highway speeds. Location and construction efficiency were more important than actual design. 

These operations had little to do with the drive-in, take-out curb service of recent years. Not until the early 1950s, when the romance with the automobile developed, did today’s roadside self-service restaurants become a part of American eating habits. The success of these operations over the past 25 years resulted from an amalgam of several uniquely American social and cultural factors: the attainment of mass personal automobility; the presence of disposable income; the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which set the stage for the smiting of regional boundaries; the growth of the television market, which for the first time in history allowed corporations to pinpoint with frightening accuracy what millions of Americans were doing at the exact same instant; and a simple home-body attitude which regards the consistent but boring as more desirable than the inconsistent but potentially exciting. 

One of the first, and certainly the most successful of the modern brand of franchises, got started when, in San Bernardino, California, frustrated filmmakers Richard and Maurice McDonald converted their barbecue restaurant into a pared-down, highly efficient hamburger joint. McDonald’s restaurant was drive-up, self-service, mechanized preparation: no carhops, no window trays, no seating, no waiting, no special orders, no varied menu; no, no, no: fast, fast, fast. 

Architecturally, McDonald’s paid no allegiance to anyone or any place. It stood on its own (to such a literal extent that in the early years the arches actually supported the roof — visibility AND structure for the same money). Red and white glazed tiles were bright and easy to clean. Internally lit golden arches — conceived and sketched by Dick McD. — kept the colors primary, “pleasing” and attention-getting. The structure served, in the classic sense, as both building and sign; both function and symbol at one time. While the basic shed housed the operation, the arches, the color and the overall image lured the passing public to this oasis on the autoscape. 

Architecture á la McDonald’s is an architecture of communication, where building image and salable product become one in the mind of the consumer. And it is specifically aimed at the high speed, moving picture world of the automobile. In the ’30s, the owner of an ice cream or dairy stand, for example, might have fabricated his building in the shape of a giant milk bottle or ice cream freezer. The more bizarre the building, the more eye-catching and interesting the experience. 

Today, that directness has been abstracted, a fact made necessary by changing social attitudes and made possible by huge chains and national advertising. But the building is still a sign, still a beacon to the motorist. Architecture serves the company’s sales force, and marketing professionals still retain an important role in the execution and refinement of a design scheme. Basically, franchise architecture is not designed to please us, it’s designed to attract us. The remarkable similarity of franchise design across the country is the result of huge companies aiming for similar markets, and their sheepish reliance on proven-effective materials and imagery. We are not supposed to like the building, just remember it, and associate it with experiences effortlessly. It’s a small task to ask of a building, which is why today’s franchise architecture works so well. 

Today’s marketing strategies call for a “family restaurant” approach, because the teenager who hung out at the drive-in hamburger joint in the late ’50s and early ’60s now has a wife, kids and disposable income. He and his family spend more in one meal than he did as a kid in a week. The aims of this new “family” scheme have created different directions for franchise architecture and have brought to the surface a number of new uses of materials. In the eyes of today’s franchise designer, the family restaurant and the earlier designs of super high visibility are mutually exclusive. To Larry Ray, of Colwell, Ray, Hornacek and Okinata, Inc., designers of franchise architecture in California, “the hardest thing to do is to smash the guy in the eye and say, ‘Look, I’m here,’ and at the same time not add offensive imagery to the community.” However, visibility in some form is a prerequisite for franchise architecture, no matter what the marketing direction. So, while buildings become blander, the signs grow taller, bigger and brighter. 


From the beginning, the typical franchise building has been composed of a tiny little base or plinth below a great expanse of glass, all topped by a commanding and symbolic roof. It (very) roughly corresponds with the three major elements of a classical column: base, shaft and capital. (Forgive the heretical analogy.) 

Bases are most often of brick nowadays, although colored plastic or metal panels framed by extruded aluminum was once the standard. The base, be it brightly colored panels or muted earthtone brickwork, establishes the essential context of the building. It is an extremely simple way of setting the architectural and, therefore, marketing tone. Primary colors for the base went out of popularity not long after seating was introduced into franchised eateries. Quieter colors and more neutral materials imply respectability, more in keeping with a legitimate restaurant, brick being more “tasteful” than glaring yellow plastic. 

A tiny, thin base allows for giant, overscaled windows. Through these openings, unsuspecting customers pantomime their innocent, television-like advertisement beckoning those on the outside to come in and join the fun. Huge windows give the building an unusual, abstract scale, making it appear much larger and more monumental than it actually is. Today, expanses of glass are broad and uninterrupted; detailing and facade decoration in general do not exist. Aluminum sash is now bronze anodized to give it a rich, dark color. Browns and grays in smoked glass have become the norm, their tones suggesting a calm environment. 

The decorative capital of a franchise building is its roof, the hallmark of just about every reasonably design-conscious chain. It must be loud enough to draw attention, but not so intrusive as to be obnoxious. Think of Hardee’s and you see a bright orange roof; think of Pizza Hut and it’s deep red with a long, slim upward projection in the center. Think of the old Arby’s and it’s a bright yellow inverted ellipse and McDonald’s, of course, is the double-dip mansard in shakes with exposed ribs. The roof carries the message of the experience to be enjoyed once inside. It must be arresting, yes, but must not destroy the carefully honed feeling of a cozy little building offering some good food.

Oddly, as franchising enters the 1980s, signs of new directions are surfacing that may have a distinct effect on both design and marketing. The industry has settled into a number of nationally visible giants being followed, but not challenged, by many smaller regional operations. This means two things: first, the days of aggressive, almost mindless, expansion are dying, returning some of the focus of corporate attention onto individual outlets. Second, the established industry leaders, whose success no longer hangs solely on nationwide recognizability, will begin making more specific overtures to local sensibilities. According to Howard Gevertz of the George Lang Corporation, a New York-based restaurant consulting firm, the giants are finally becoming conscious of regionalism. Gevertz claims, "Increasingly, major chains are recognizing the need for compromise, for accommodation. The industry is now 25 years old; it's matured in that time. Older chains like McDonald's want into these better communities. Compromise is a part of that."

For example, the 1977 Directory of McDonald’s Restaurants showed 16 new design schemes, from "French Quarter” to “New England” through the obligatory “Williamsburg” and back. While they are all little more than dressed-up versions of the standard building, they indicate a major increase in acceptable variations for that company. Furthermore, McDonald’s is one of the leaders in placing its outlets sympathetically into historic buildings. They can afford to be; image consistency is becoming almost expendable. 

Arby’s, an Atlanta-based firm, has taken a bold move in the redesign of its buildings. Like the golden arches, Arby’s design was sketched out by its president, with execution left to a technical staff. But Arby’s has stepped away from the symbolic, magnetic architecture of the past, moving far along the lines of building an image of stability rather than haste. The building is fascinating in the context of today’s uninventive franchise fare, making controlled use of dark earth-tone colors in its steeply pitched roof and large glass areas. Lighter natural tones appear in the circular exposed concrete columns that carry the large front roof overhang. The entry is recessed with the name “Arby’s” on the glass above the door in clean white letters. The use of materials is straightforward and dramatic. The use of exposed concrete as a franchise building material is completely unprecedented, but handled simply and successfully. So the building attains the status of well-handled “legitimate” architecture, placing significantly more emphasis on real appearance and the use of materials than on mindless frills supposed to be attractive to the family market. There is certainly some question as to whether this trend will be to the betterment of our built environment, but at this point, as far as franchising is concerned, we have little to risk. 

Ironically, the little regional companies, striving to compete, have abandoned the real potential for sensitive interpretation of local design in favor of the corporate look. According to Steve Cooper, an architect with the Captain D’s chain, “the standard appearance is adhered to strictly, to hold a consistent image for travelers. Visibility is important at interstate [highway] locations, but this is handled mostly through signage.” Cooper, who came to Captain D’s from Arthur Treacher’s, indicated that franchise design could never really accommodate to local trends. Real regionalism would “destroy an image,” he said. 

The South is now suffering an invasion of the franchise plague worse than other areas. It provides an unhindered field for marketing, leaving corporations virtually free reign, with little, if any, of the formal design review process that exists at the local level in Northern communities. Compromises — on site selection, design, signage and more — imposed on a corporation by an active and concerned town review body force a design that fits visually into a neighborhood. The clear thrust of franchise architecture in the South has been to impose an image onto an area, rather than adapt it to fit. 

But to blame the death of Southern individuality on franchising is to give it more credit than it is due. The fact is that the franchise owner has in the past and will continue in the future to yield to local design pressures. So, while we appear to have already lost much of what makes the South unique, there is without a doubt a great deal left. It can be eaten up by franchising, or it can be saved by careful manipulation and local pressure. Judiciously exerted, the power of control rests with us, if we want it, to preserve that remaining Southernness.