NEW YORK >> Abdul Haye, the self-styled Colonel Sanders of New York’s Afghan community, has declared a fried chicken war.
He has armed himself with an unwritten secret recipe that he claims allows him to fry the best bird in town. His main weapon, he says, is ownership of the trademark for the Kennedy Fried Chicken brand, which has spawned hundreds of imitators as far south as Georgia, and has become to oily drumsticks what the ubiquitous Ray’s name once was to New York pizza.
That Kennedy, named after the former president, was itself a deliberate imitation of Kentucky Fried Chicken, down to those familiar initials — and that it had its own trademark battle a generation ago — seems to make little difference to Haye, 38, a wired and wiry resident of Whitestone, Queens. He began working as a chicken fryer when he was 17, soon after he immigrated in 1989, and describes his rivals with ire similar to that he reserves for the Taliban.
“I’m declaring war against all the Afghans in New York who have stolen my name and my idea,” Haye said the other day at one of his five chicken outlets, showing off the trademark certificate the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington had awarded him in 2005. He waved a thick stack of some of the 300 registered letters he began to mail last week to Kennedy outlets across the country, insisting that they pay him a monthly franchise fee, or face legal action. “Their poor quality chicken is going to kill my reputation,” Haye complained. “I am the only real Kennedy!”
While lamb is the protein of choice in Haye’s homeland, two generations of Afghans in America have found a lifeline in the humble chicken. Those in the industry say there are some 350 Afghan-owned chicken stores across the five boroughs employing thousands of Afghan-Americans.
Plates of battered breasts — all halal, to be sure — are served at local mosques after Friday prayers, and short-order cooks stash prayer mats next to the freezers. Fried chicken has put children through college, financed elaborate weddings, provided work for newly arrived refugees and put food on the table for thousands of relatives back in Kabul. But the fast-food world can seem as tribal as Afghanistan itself, and Haye’s crusade threatens to unravel the fragile harmony in the fried-chicken fraternity.
“We won’t pay a penny,” huffed Nour Abdullah, the manager of Kennedy Fried Chicken on Junction Boulevard in Corona, Queens, which seems indistinguishable from Haye’s except for the fried shrimp balls and gyros on the menu. “I can rename the shop Munir Fried Chicken after my son or even New Kennedy Fried Chicken. Then let’s see what he’s going to do.”
A few doors down, Najib Ullah, a chicken fryer from Kabul, was equally defiant. “Anyone can own a Kennedy, and I’ve never heard of this Abdul Haye,” he said. “Every place has a different owner: same chicken, different menu. So what’s the problem?”
One recent Friday at Abu Bakir, a predominantly Afghan mosque in Flushing, Queens, the consensus among the congregants was that Haye may have the law on his side, but Afghan intransigence, conditioned during decades of war and occupation, was firmly stacked against him.
Muhammad Sherzad, the avuncular imam, said that Allah provided enough chicken to go around. The Quran, he noted, gives its blessing to Muslims eating chicken, as long as it is slaughtered in accordance with Islamic dietary laws.
According to local lore, Zia Taeb, who came to New York from Kabul in 1972, opened the first Kennedy Fried Chicken three years later on Nostrand Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. The outlet and its red and white logo, which many customers confused with Kentucky Fried Chicken, quickly prospered, helping him earn the nickname Zia Morgh, or “Zia Chicken” in Dari, an Afghan language. It also attracted the notice of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which sued Kennedy for trademark infringement in 1990 in a New York federal court — and won — before changing its name to KFC the next year, which muted the dispute.
“I didn’t speak much English then, but it was easy to see that you could make money,” Taeb recalled. “The price of chicken was inexpensive and stable, and anyone could work behind the counter.”
The same way Korean bodegas, Greek diners and Indian-owned gas stations exploded, Taeb’s foray into the chicken business had a ripple effect: Afghan immigrants who worked at his six Kennedy outlets soon opened up their own outposts with names like Crown Fried Chicken, Royal Fried Chicken and Mamma’s Fried Chicken. Or, Kennedy copycats: a quarter-century later, more than 200 such places, in nine states and Canada and England, are listed on kennedyfriedchicken.com.
Reached by phone in San Diego, where he has long since retired from the chicken business, Zia, who now exports precious stones to China, said he had chosen the Kennedy name “because Afghans are fond of the former president.” And he insisted that he — not Haye — was the rightful owner of the Kennedy brand. “He won’t win because I know my people, and Afghans will never pay him,” he said. “I will go after him.” Haye, who bought his first fried-chicken place after a seven-month apprenticeship at a Kennedy outlet in Queens owned by another Afghan, conceded that Zia Morgh was a poultry pioneer. But he sees himself as the reigning chicken king.
Haye said he first started using the Kennedy Fried Chicken name in 1994, though he waited nearly 10 years to apply for a trademark. Haye said he also changed the logo on his Kennedy stores from red to blue in the 1990s to avoid antagonizing KFC and its army of lawyers.
Jennifer Rankin Byrne, a spokeswoman for the trademark office, declined to comment on the Kennedy case specifically, but said a federal trademark registration for restaurant services “established a legal presumption that the registration owner has the exclusive right to use the mark nationwide."
According to the patent office’s database, there have been five other trademark applications for the Kennedy name since 1991, each of which was either denied or abandoned.
Rick Maynard, a spokesman for KFC, acknowledged that the company had inspired imitators across the world and said it was continuing to “vigorously protect” its trademark. Haye insists he will do the same.