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Chicken Licken was founded in South Africa by George Sombonos, the son of a Greek immigrant restaurant owner. Sombonos learned the restaurant trade in the 1970s at the Dairy Den, his father’s restaurant in Ridgeway, a suburb in the southern Inner City region of Johannesburg. KFC entered the South African market in 1971. Sombonos bought Chicken Licken’s secret fried chicken recipe from the owner of a fast food outlet in Waco, Texas, for US $1,000 while touring the United States in 1972 and introduced it to the Dairy Den. In 1975 he started serving black customers in their cars when apartheid segregation laws restricted their access to restaurants. In 1976 he introduced the drive-through restaurant concept to the Dairy Den after seeing it at Wendy’s restaurants in the United States.
His father died in 1980 and Sombonos opened the first Chicken Licken restaurant in 1981 on the site of the Dairy Den. In 1982 he gave away the first two franchises, based in Soweto and Alexandra, as the company was still unknown and he was unable to sell them. Chicken Licken’s presence in the townships during apartheid helped it to establish a loyal customer base among black South Africans. However, internal resistance to apartheid intensified in the mid-1980s and the company’s operations in the townships were adversely affected by civil unrest until 1991. The company’s association with the townships has also presented a challenge to growth outside the townships in a changing South Africa. George’s daughter Chantal started working at Chicken Licken in 2001, and is next in line to succeed him running the family-owned business.
Initially, new Chicken Licken outlets were only opened in South African townships. Since the apartheid era ended in 1994, the black middle class has moved out of the townships and the company has changed its focus to expanding in higher income areas and upmarket shopping malls. As of 2013, there are 247 Chicken Licken outlets in South Africa and 12 outlets in Botswana. As of 2012 only 12 of the Chicken Licken outlets in South Africa are owned by the company, including the company’s six most successful restaurants.
Attempts to establish a presence in other African countries have been unsuccessful. Outlets in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Mauritius were closed down due to problems with franchisees and the supply of chickens, electricity and foreign exchange for ingredients. Outlets in Lesotho and Swaziland in southern Africa were also closed down due to unpleasant business experiences.