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How the Yogi Bear Honey Fried chicken chain got pecked down to one

Yogi Bear Honey Fried Chicken is the last link to a chicken shack chain that once stretched across the Carolinas, but there was never supposed to be a single Yogi Bear in the first place.

In the late 1960s, when Minnie Pearl and Mahalia Jackson had attached their names to fried chicken franchises, Columbia’s Gene Broome had the idea that Jackie Gleason might want to do the same. Broome flew to Miami, but the comedian, who a decade earlier had created the character of Stanley R. Sogg, No-Cal Chicken Fat promoter, was unmoved by Broome’s pitch.

“Then he saw Yogi Bear on a TV thing, and he liked it,” recalls former partner Roy Davis. Broome had found the celebrity association he needed to popularize his honey-flavored chicken additive.

“You had to put something in the chicken when it was cooking,” Davis says. “It was a chemical type thing that tenderized the chicken and had a honey taste. It took off like you would not believe.”

From its first location in Myrtle Beach, Yogi Bear expanded to Charlotte, Rocky Mount and Hartsville, among other cities. The franchise was about six stores strong when Hardee’s expressed interest in the honey technology; the Rocky Mount-based chain purchased the method for $1 million, according to Davis.

But once Yogi Bear belonged to Hardee’s, the branded stores were largely neglected.

“It was mismanagement,” says Yogi Bear’s current owner, George Atkins. “All the rest of them just didn’t control their costs.”

Broome tried to repeat his success with Frank-N-Stein (hot dogs and beer). Davis, skeptical, declined to sign on: “The name of it was bad, and sure enough, he didn’t make it.”

Atkins believes the second-to-last Yogi Bear closed 20 years ago. For Hartsville, the surviving restaurant is a source of profound pride.

“I went down to Hartsville about a year ago, and I went over to the store, and you would have thought I was Donald Trump,” Davis says. “He let me eat anything I wanted. People still rant and rave about it: They say no matter where you go, you can’t get no better.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.