You may not know his name but you will certainly know his work: Morris Cassanova (aka Mr Chicken) designs and makes signs for most of the fried chicken shops in the UK. In an extract from her book Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie, Siâron Hughes meets him
Siâron: Could you tell me about MBC (Morris Benjamin Cassanova) Signs and how you started it?
Morris: MBC Signs started back in 1979, somewhere along that line. I used to work for a company by the name of Red Circus Signs in Harrow Road, but while working for them they moved out close to Heathrow airport and the distance was too far for me to travel. And so I got myself some premises in Kingsland Road and I set up from there.
It was very hard for us to get in with some of the major fried chicken companies…the bigger boys don’t want to know. A lot of it was back-handers, he’ll stick with one company because he’s getting a ticket to Wembley or Wimbledon or something like that, and we were not in a position to make those sorts of offers. So the majority of work which we got was by recommendation from other people.
Siâron: So all the Perfect Fried Chicken and the bigger companies, that came in time did it?
Morris: Yeah, the chicken world or the fast food world started taking over in a big way about ten years ago, no the early 90s. A lot of people who were franchisees say from Kentucky Fried Chicken or something like that, maybe were feeling the squeeze. They feel as though they were working for Kentucky Fried Chicken and y’know Kentucky is so strict, whatever they says goes. And so a lot of them come out of the franchise because they know how to prepare the chicken and how to do that and what have you, a lot of them branch off and call themselves different names. So that’s why we get all these different names now. Some of them who’ve gone on like Sams Fried Chicken and things like that they’ve grown bigger and they’re now letting people use their name for which they charge a certain amount.
Some of the areas are so saturated with chicken shops, y’know what I mean? I blame the council to be honest to a certain extent, for letting a shop be within in a certain y’know. I feel sorry for some of them, when I put up a sign here today for somebody and then next week somebody wants me to put up another sign virtually next door. They’re going to struggle to make ends meet. So eventually what’s happening is that instead of some of the shops just doing chicken alone they diversify to things like pizza, burgers, kebabs, so you can go into one shop and you get four different types of menu as apposed to just chicken alone. Whereas, back to Kentucky Fried Chicken, they would not allow something like that to happen. People like Favorite Fried Chicken, they have got bigger over the years. They’ve got quite a few outlets, and even them tried to become like Kentucky Fried Chicken by not letting the franchisee do anything else apart from chicken, even them in certain areas has allowed certain things to carry on because they notice that the people are struggling to make ends meet. All they want is their money at the end of the day so they allow them to y’know maybe start selling pizzas, start selling burgers and what have you.
Siâron: Sometimes you’ll get a chicken logo appearing for Chicken Cottage and then you have virtually the same logo for Orlando Fried Chicken, how does that work?
Morris: People do copy logos as they go along. We design a hell of a lot of logos for chicken shops of which we’ve never registered any of them, and if these names are not registered people just use them, right? And people like Chicken Cottage and things like that, you’ll see they have a ™ at the end of each of their logos. It’s registered, so anyone trying to copy that, although they look similar in appearance if you look at it, it’s completely different, there’s no interlocking chickens or halal sign and things like that. Everything’s different. The majority of the logos you see floating about we came up with.
Siâron: Yeah, your nickname is Mr Chicken, which is why I got hold of you. Quite a few different chicken and kebab shop owners referred to you by it!
Morris: (laughing) All of these in your book, I did.
Siâron: In London, how much of the signage would you say you’re responsible for?
Morris: I would say 90% of the logos that’s been used out there now, was originally designed by ourselves. People see them and try to change them around a little bit, and you will see somewhere along the line somebody will have something looking similar to that. It’s not all about the bits and pieces that goes with it, they will automatically try to copy it.
Siâron: There’s lots of mimicking America going on isn’t there?
Morris: Yeah, yeah the majority of shop owners out there they want for some reason or other, because Kentucky Fried Chicken is an American company, they wants to give the impression that they are linked with the American fast food chain. In the past Kentucky usually have a little logo, a little slogan, “American Recipe,” people used to copy that. I mean a lot of people still try, and we say, “Oh that’s old fashioned, people not using that again.” Because they try to pull the wool over people’s eyes, you get your Dallas, it’s American, you get your California, it’s American, you get your Mississippi it’s American, and so forth and so on, and people just use those names to link with America just as well as they’re using their recipe, y’know. You hardly ever see a sign saying English Fried Chicken, or with an English name or anything like that.
Siâron: You’ve already mentioned how the menus aren’t necessarily very American anymore?
Morris: No it’s not so American anymore, because people eventually found out it doesn’t matter anymore, once the product is good and it’s selling that’s all people is interested in. In the early days when Kentucky first came over everyone was brain-washed, y’know? It’s American and it’s good, it’s gotta be good because it’s American. It’s not just chicken shops it’s pizza, too. You get people like Domino Pizza or Pizza Hut. You find other little shops they learn how to do pizza and wise up to it, once the quality of your product is good you’ve got companies like Perfect Fried Chicken, which looks different and changes their logo.
Siâron: In all your years working, have you got any funny stories?
Morris: (laughing) My brain is a little bit fuzzy now. We had one, over at Lewisham and he chose the computer age and computer images and things like that. The guy wanted the name Chicken Dot Com. What’s that? That’s the name he wanted. We managed to talk him out of it, y’know. Chicken Dot Com. I was like “Are you some company to repair Chickens?!” (laughs)
There was a bloke as well, near Brixton that way. He wanted his chicken shop, originally he was Dallas, but he wanted to come out of Dallas and wants to use his son’s name. But on the signboard itself there was hardly anything about chicken. It was more like the life of his son, because he wanted all of his pictures all over the sign, y’know? I suppose because he’s so proud of him that’s what he wanted. But it was nothing to do with chicken at all it was mainly just to do with the life story of his son. If you drove past there you wouldn’t think it was a chicken shop. After two or three years he was closed down because nobody was taking much notice. You can only try and advise people when they come along to you in things like that. You don’t think that’s right, you’ve been in the trade for so many years that don’t sound right, y’know? Some people, it takes a hell of a lot to convince them of that, y’know! (laughs).
Graphic designer Siâron Hughes was first drawn to the visual world of fried chicken after a flier was pushed through her door bearing the enticing words “Dunk Your Dipper”. Intrigued, she started documenting and talking to the owners of fried chicken shops all over London and, eventually, in the US.
“At first sight, much of this signage appears the same, but there are differences, subtle as they may be,” she says. This is the real appeal of chicken shop signage.”
What makes her book stand out from other “vernacular type” showcases is her evident interest in the people who run the shops and those involved in producing the graphics for menus, signs and so on. The book is packed with interviews and photographs from the shops, some of which are amusing, others quite touching in their revelation of the sometimes dangerous profession of being a purveyor of fried poultry to the (often drunk) masses.
Chicken: Low Art, High Calorie is published by Mark Batty Publisher, price £14.95