Darrell Huckaby - 05/13/09

"There's no such thing as a free lunch."

I don't know where that phrase originated, but it was one of my daddy's favorites. He would pull it out and dust it off and use it every time I got caught up in the notion that I could get something for nothing - which was frequently, if the truth be known. I have always been the gullible type and quick to believe the promises of shysters and the miracle claims of the snake oil salesmen of the world.

Oprah tried to disprove my daddy's adage last week - with a little help from the ghost of Harlan Sanders - and the result was what the U.S. Army, circa WW II, would have termed FUBAR which roughly stands for fouled up beyond all recognition. FUBAR is a close relative of SNAFU - situation normal, all fouled up. You get the idea. The Oprah/KFC let's buy America a free lunch idea wreaked havoc at fast food restaurants from sea to shining sea - all for a $4-dinner - which proves the old axiom, "Print a coupon and they will come."

In case you spent the past week in a coma - or boycotted television in protest of the Obama administration's refusal to delay the onset of digital television until after the summer rerun season - I'll give you a little background.

At Kentucky Fried Chicken, where the Colonel used to cook finger-licking-Sunday-dinner-good fried chicken seven days a week, they are rolling out a new product. Grilled chicken. That's right. KFC, the world's largest restaurant chain (they love the Colonel in China) has turned health conscious and is grilling now.

So the Madison Avenue types were looking for an ingenious way to get people to try their new product. And Oprah Winfrey was looking for a reason to give somebody something. We had the perfect storm, or at least the perfect recipe for chaos. Take a basic coupon giveaway, stir in an endorsement from television's most influential afternoon talk show hostess, slowly blend with the magic of the Internet, top off with a midnight deadline and bring to a rapid boil. Voila! Free lunch mania!

I started getting forwarded e-mails about a week ago - and I am sure you probably did, too - from friends who were careful to type "this is for real" in the subject line. The e-mails contained a link to an Internet coupon from KFC and Oprah Winfrey that was good for the new grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, slaw and a biscuit - a $3.99 value - for free.

Who wouldn't go crazy over a $4 dinner? America was seized by grilled chicken mania and the Internet server that handled the coupons became jammed as millions and millions of us logged on to download our ticket to a free lunch. Honesty compels me to admit that I tried for about three hours one night before giving up in frustration. My computer kept timing out and when I did reach the site, all I got was a picture of a middle-aged bespectacled lady with a warm smile asking me to come back later.

Apparently a lot of people - and I mean a whole lot of people - had more luck than I did, because on the day the promotion began there were reports of long lines, traffic jams and mass confusion at restaurants all across the land. There was apparently a lack of communication between corporate headquarters and the workers in the trenches because a lot of would-be consumers were turned away at a number of restaurants, including a few in the metro area. Some were told that the coupons had to be printed in color. Others were told the serial numbers on the coupons were in the wrong sequence. Others were apparently told, "Coupon? I don't know nothing about no stinking coupon?"

After a day or two of confusion the word got out and all the franchisers apparently got the word that when Oprah gives away chicken, she gives away chicken, and the problems with coupon redemption were solved. Now we had an even bigger crisis. There wasn't enough grilled chicken on hand to feed all of Oprah's friends.

Lines wrapped around buildings and cars spilled out of drive-through lines and blocked traffic in small towns and big cities. In New York City - yes, they apparently have KFC restaurants in New York City - fights reportedly broke out as citizens of the Big Apple grew impatient and unruly while waiting to redeem their coupons. The bottom line? Supply just couldn't keep up with demand and the CEO of KFC had to appear on NBC, CBS, and every other network that can string together three call letters and inform the world that KFC is out of grilled chicken - for the time being - but that the coupons will be honored as soon as a few billion feathers can be plucked and the supply replenished.

So patience, y'all. The free lunch is forthcoming, even if I won't get mine because my coupon didn't print. I didn't want grilled chicken anyway, but I promise you one thing. If Oprah ever starts giving away barbecue or catfish, I will be the first person in line.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.