MARIETTA, Georgia – The Big Chicken, located along Cobb Parkway in southern Marietta, is a true Atlanta landmark.
Motorists reference the 56-foot-tall big chicken when giving directions (as in “head past the Big Chicken and turn right”). Radio stations mention it when describing traffic. Airplane pilots even use it as a landmark for navigation.
What the Leaning Tower is to Pisa and the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the Big Chicken is to Marietta. Forget the city’s Civil War history and its quaint city square. People from around the globe identify Marietta by its over-sized bird.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Big Chicken is a throwback to another time, one when the owners of roadside eateries did what they needed to do to draw in passing motorists.
In the early 1960s, S.R. “Tubby” Davis saw potential in the newly repaved Cobb Parkway, a divided highway that predated freeways as we know them today. Wanting to lure hungry travelers into his Johnny Reb’s Chick, Chuck and Shake restaurant, he erected the five-story-tall chicken, designed by Hubert Puckett, an architecture student at nearby Georgia Tech.
After Davis sold the restaurant to his brother, it became a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, which it remains to this day. In the late 1980s, the city administrator in nearby Smyrna asked KFC to relocate the structure to their city; while the company apparently said it would consider relocating the iconic chicken, the plan never came to fruition.
Today, the Big Chicken is a bit of an anomaly, something unique at a fast food restaurant. Cobb Parkway is a string of urban sprawl, one fast food joint after another. Originally built as more or less a marketing gimmick, the chicken has been embraced by locals and has remained a landmark – even for directions – for more than 45 years.
After it was damaged by a storm in 1993, KFC debated whether to rebuild the Big Chicken. The community seemed to be in agreement: The Big Chicken was a local landmark, and it needed to remain; KFC shelled out $700,000 to rehabilitate the restaurant and return the giant bird to working order.
Today’s incarnation of this local icon features a moving beak and rotating eyes. While the original Big Chicken also featured a moving beak and eyes, the machinery apparently caused strong vibrations – enough to break nearby windows, according to local sources.
In addition to its landmark status, the chicken has also inspired several businesses that have opted to use the “Big Chicken” name, including a pawn shop next door.
Todd DeFeo is an award-winning reporter and marketer, but his true passion is seeking out the bizarre roadside attractions, one-of-a-kind roadhouses and unique destinations that make the world worth exploring. He is also editor of The Travel Trolley travel blog.