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News Obituaries

Theodore Holmes, founder of Chicken George restaurant chain

Theodore Neal "Ted" Holmes, who founded the old Chicken George restaurant chain and built it into a regional fast-food business, died of diabetic complications Nov. 29 at Sanctuary at Holy Cross in Burtonsville. The Jessup resident was 72.

Born in York, Pa., he was son of the Theodore G. Holmes, a Cadillac dealership worker, and Sarah Wilson Holmes. He was a 1957 graduate of William Penn Senior High School, where he played basketball and was later inducted into the school's hall of fame. He earned an associate's degree in business administration at San Diego State College and also played on its team.

As a young man he joined the Congress of Racial Equality and was president of the York chapter. He remained active in civil rights throughout his life. An education advocate, he ran for a seat on the York school board in 1966.

In the 1960s he joined the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's personnel department in downtown Baltimore. In 1969 he founded his own business, Atlantic Personnel Services. In 1974 he won a contract to handle military cargo at the Dundalk Marine Terminal and later branched into a firm that supplied meals to colleges and military installations.

In a 1981 Sun interview, Mr. Holmes recalled a dream to open his own retail food business. He and his staff spent two years interviewing thousands of potential restaurant customers to find a unserved niche in the fast-food market. They identified fried chicken — made in a way that matched home cooking.

Before opening, he said he tested 300 chicken recipes, traveling with his wife and daughters to New Orleans, California, Kansas City and Chicago. "I've eaten enough chicken to last me the third lifetime into the future," he said. He conceived a menu of spicy chicken, collard greens, tasty rice, corn on the cob, buttermilk biscuits, chicken gumbo and sweet potato and apple pies.

He selected the name based on the character of Chicken George in the Alex Haley book "Roots." He said that name had been promoted by the ABC television version.

In 1979 he opened his first Chicken George Restaurant at the Mondawmin Mall, later opening units in Edmondson Village, Walbrook and on Howard Street in downtown Baltimore. He also expanded into Prince George's County, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta and Virginia. He operated his business from a downtown Baltimore headquarters.

Mr. Holmes said his restaurant was so successful, "we didn't expect this kind of demand and we just can't turn it out fast enough." The newspaper story said, "Although they can be a bit frustrating at times, the lines and reports of waits of up to 20 minutes or more are perhaps the restaurant chain's most flattering testimonial. They indicate public acceptance."

Mr. Holmes initially estimated his Mondawmin location as doing $12,000 to $15,000 a week. By 1981, it did $40,000 to $50,000 weekly. His Philadelphia restaurant set a record of $57,000 in sales in a week, a Sun 1986 story said.

His business soon faced competition from larger fast-food competitors who introduced similar meals. In 1986 he filed for bankruptcy.

Family members said Mr. Holmes had met South African business people and spent time with them at their homes in the late 1980s and 1990s. He encouraged their work and supported the end of South African apartheid. He was once introduced to Winnie Mandela.

"Chicken George was my father's dream, and he built it up," said his daughter, Felicia Holmes of Columbia. "When it closed, he picked up and moved on and wanted young entrepreneurs to learn by his mistakes. Business was his life."

Mr. Holmes was an admirer of Bea Gaddy. A memorial has been established in his name at her Women and Children's Center in East Baltimore.

A life celebration will be held from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m Dec. 18 at Amherst House, 7251 Eden Brook Drive, Columbia.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include three other daughters, Christle Holmes and Kim Bones, both of York, Pa., and Fern Winfield of Columbia; a brother, Cleo Holmes of Washington, D.C.; a sister, Sharon Lowrie of Harrisburg, Pa.; and five grandchildren. His marriage to A. Joyce Palmer ended in divorce.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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