LIMA — Now serving fresh-baked biscuits, coleslaw and, of course, fried chicken. For more than 50 years Lee’s Famous Recipe, which got its start in Lima, has been serving fried chicken, lots of fried chicken.
In early 1966, partners Lee Cummings and Harold Omer opened the forerunner of Lee’s, Harold’s Take Home, at 1425 Allentown Road in Lima, offering a three-piece box of chicken for $1.25 and, during the summer months, a picnic special of 21 pieces of chicken for $7.49. The chicken, a Lima News ad from February 1966 promised, was “lip-smackin’ good.”
Both Omer, who was manager of aerospace engineering at Lima’s Westinghouse plant, and Cummings had ties to Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of the KFC chain. Cummings was Sanders’ nephew, while Omer had married one of Sanders’ nieces.
According to the Lee’s website, Cummings spent much of his childhood in the kitchen of the family’s Henryville, Indiana, home before hitting the road in 1952 with his uncle Harland Sanders, who, despite his association with Kentucky, also was a native of Henryville. The pair sold Sanders’ special blend of spices as well as pressure cookers designed by Sanders for frying chicken. The cookers later became an integral part of KFC’s “special recipe.”
After opening 800 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, Sanders sold the company to a group of investors led by then-Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown. After the sale, Sanders continued as an ambassador for the brand while Cummings began working on his own special blend of spices. Cummings’ “Famous Recipe” debuted at Harold’s Take Home in 1966.
Within weeks of the opening of Harold’s, Cummings’ “Lip-Smackin’ Good” recipe had proved its popularity. In an April 5, 1991, story in The Lima News Omer recalled a time when he would pull into the parking lot of the restaurant fresh from his job at Westinghouse to find the parking lot jammed. Omer, the News wrote, would rush into the kitchen still dressed in his best suit to help prepare meals.
The company quickly outgrew Lima. Within a half year of opening Harold’s Take Home, Omer and Cummings moved the headquarters to Dayton. In 1967, Lee’s Famous Recipe, as it was now known, opened restaurants in Dayton and Cincinnati, and in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Business continued to be good and, within three years of opening the Allentown Road store, Lee’s sales had doubled from $40 million annually to $80 million annually. In 1972, according to Lee’s web site, the company opened its 100th store in Sanford, Florida.
“I think engineering and Famous Recipe was a good combination,” Omer told the News in a story published Feb. 25, 1996, as the restaurant chain’s celebrated its 30th anniversary. Omer, the News noted, used his engineering talents to design a gas-fired oven that greatly improved fuel efficiency.
Meanwhile, back where it all started, Charles Yohe got in on the ground floor, purchasing the Allentown Road franchise in 1967. He would later open a second Lee’s Famous Recipe at 949 Bellefontaine Ave.
Yohe, who would acquire the nickname “Chicken Charlie,” got his start in the restaurant business from his father. When Yohe was 16 years old, his father scraped together all he had to get a start in the fried chicken business. Each day after school, and on weekends, Yohe would help his father by cooking in the restaurant.
Yohe was a longtime friend of Omer and, like Omer, worked at Lima’s Westinghouse plant. When he heard of the success of the Lee’s brand he bought in, becoming the first franchisee. Yohe would tell the News in 1991 that “we were trying to help each other out and we took the chance.”
The chance paid off. Yohe went on to achieve the highest franchise sales, and the million dollar sales award for his Lima restaurants. “These awards don’t just happen overnight,” he told the News. “You have to keep focused on your goal, and every now and then, things will fall into place.”
Sales awards weren’t Yohe’s only achievements. On April 7, 1972, the News reported he’d received patents on eight new and modified methods of pressure cooking.
Charles Yohe died in 2000 and the two Lima franchises were taken over by his son, David. The two local restaurants employ about 60 people and apply the “lip-smackin’ good” blend of spices to nearly 2,000 pieces of chicken every day.
In 1981, Omer sold the then-240 Lee’s Famous Recipe restaurants to Shoney’s Inc. of Nashville, Tennessee. In 1995, Lee’s was purchased by RTM.
Omer said he continued to eat at Lee’s Famous Recipe at least twice a week even after he was no longer actively involved with the company. He died in 1999.
Reach Meg Crosby at email@example.com.