Forty- three years ago, GI-turned-GE engineer Winston Shelton designed the machines that continue to fry KFC's chicken. Today, at 90, he's still innovating for the food-service industry.
This article appeared in the July 2012 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
It’s likely the order-taker at the Dairy Queen on Bluegrass Parkway doesn’t know that the gentlemanly senior chatting her up is the inventor of some of the most influential cooking machines ever built. She just knows he’s friendly, greeting him with a cordial, “Good to see you back again.”
When he orders his usual chicken wrap and chocolate milk, she repeats it back to him, which elicits a “Beg pardon?” from him, prompting a second repeat.
“I like coming here; they’re always so nice,” says 90-year-old Winston Shelton. Unwrapping his meager lunch, he adds, “I need to stick to my diet. I follow Weight Watchers.”
That he diets at all is ironic, given the body of his work as founder, chairman and lead engineer at Winston Industries, which makes fryers and holding cabinets for fast-food chains such as Kentucky Fried Chicken. The chicken giant’s food was anything but fast before Shelton created the pressurized Collectramatic fryer in 1969, an invention that radically altered not only his life and income but the speed at which food has since been served in the restaurant industry.
Employed then as an engineer at General Electric earning $280 a month, Shelton developed the fryer for his side business, Engineering Prototype Services (EPS). According to his eldest daughter, Valerie, now president and CEO of Winston Industries, already lean living for the married father of three got even leaner when he left GE in 1968 to devote his energies to EPS. The fanatical frugality of her mother, Dolly, during that time helped the family get by. “She saved every dollar. We had a $10 couch until I was 10 or 12,” says Valerie.
Forty-four years later and at the helm of a $25 million company, money is the last of Winston Shelton’s worries. But he remains driven as ever to produce machines born of “solid, smart engineering.” That goal had led him to GE, where he authored 50 patents, but it also led him away to, “as we engineers like to say, ‘bend the tin’ the way I saw fit,” Shelton says. By inventing the Collectramatic fryer, which helped store sales and unit growth surge at KFC, “I was doing quality engineering on my own terms, and that was very gratifying.”
Born in 1922, Shelton was the youngest of five children reared by Naaman and Opal Shelton, who owned a service station and small restaurant and three-room home in Clay, W. Va. Shelton recalls Clay idyllically as a place where he and brother Naaman Jr. — who also would become a GE engineer and help found EPS — fished, “stole a rowboat when we didn’t have one,” and mobilized ordinary wagons with abandoned engines they disassembled and rebuilt. “There weren’t the distractions of TV. We made our own entertainment,” he says. “Your teacher was yourself, burned fingers and skinned knuckles.”
Shelton enrolled at Glenville College in 1941 to become a lawyer, but after two years he enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. Upon taking the Army’s General Classification Test, which matched soldiers’ skills to suitable duties, Shelton scored so highly that, rather than join up with the Army’s 104th Infantry Division, he was sent to Princeton University, where, he says, “the Army told me I was going to be an engineer!” When he arrived by train in Princeton, N.J., there on the platform was the town’s most celebrated citizen, Albert Einstein. “He wasn’t waiting for us,” Shelton quips, “but he was a sight to see.”
Following his discharge in 1945, Shelton earned a master’s in engineering at West Virginia University and was hired by GE in 1948. When the huge company consolidated its major-appliances manufacturing operations in Louisville in the early 1950s, Shelton and his new bride bought a small house and 40 acres of land off Chenoweth Run Road, and he began research and development work for GE’s automatic washing machine division at Appliance Park.
Years later, when Shelton and his brother got the itch to strike out on their own, the initial plan to leave GE centered on the creation of a zero-radius-turn lawnmower, designs he penned and refined by rising at 4 a.m. nearly every day for two years. “Oh, there were days when I didn’t want to do that,” he recalls, “but I’d tell myself, ‘Shelton, you did this yesterday and it all went well. So just get your ass out of bed and get to work.’” When he and his brother started EPS, their focus was to build the mower. But they were so quickly overwhelmed with other paid work, the mower never materialized.
When one of their customers, a filtering-equipment manufacturer named Carl Mies, asked Shelton to help him with an idea for a pressure fryer for cooking chicken, Shelton toured a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to witness what was then a perilous and inexact preparation process: Chicken was fried in 400-degree shortening under pressure in stove-top covered pots, then rushed across the kitchen and poured onto a screened basin that caught the food and let the molten shortening slip through. Cooks were burned regularly and the pressure cookers occasionally exploded. “I watched that madness and thought, ‘That’s an engineer’s dream, man!’” Shelton recalls with a laugh. “There were so many problems to solve, and that was just the low-hanging fruit.”
Shelton designed Mies’ fryer for him, then expanded on the idea and created a stationary, self-filtering fryer that would use precision time and temperature controls to produce Kentucky Fried Chicken to Colonel Harland Sanders’ legendarily maniacal standards. When the Collectramatic 519 was completed in 1969, “there were still some engineering problems to work out,” Shelton recalls. “But it was so much better than what they were doing that we were selling them into the system like crazy.”
Shelton’s device, says Fred Jeffries, the chain’s vice president of purchasing during those years, helped fuel KFC’s rapid expansion and success. “There’s no way it could have grown like it did without the Collectramatic,” Jeffries says. “Stores were doing about $200,000 a year in sales on average with the pots . . . but they could never have done the $900,000 a year it became without Win’s fryer. He helped set the stage for that with true engineering thinking.”
Widespread franchisee use of Collectramatics troubled John Y. Brown Jr., then the company’s president and half of the twosome that bought the company from Sanders in 1964. He had given tacit approval to a similar pressure fryer developed by L.S. Hartzog and wanted that to be the chain’s standard. His biggest concern about both fryers was, “We didn’t really know anything about either of them,” says Brown, who became governor of Kentucky in 1977. “Though those old pots were damn dangerous, at least we knew they worked! I was mostly afraid these new fryers would break down in the middle of business.”
Though Colonel Sanders publicly approved Shelton’s machine in 1970, Brown held his ground and warned franchisees they were in violation of their contracts if they used Collectramatics. Problem was, Brown’s father, John Sr., owned multiple Kentucky Fried Chicken stores in Lexington and all used Collectramatics. Informed of his father’s equipment choice, the fryer battle was over. “John Y. was not pleased to learn his father was using my fryer,” Shelton says, grinning.
Sanders’ interest in the Collectramatic led to a friendship with Shelton, a relationship that came in handy when an employee at Shelton’s bank embezzled “a considerable sum of money from me,” he recalls, “and nearly drove us out of business.” When Shelton sought a loan in 1970 to shore up his young firm, Sanders told the lender he’d guarantee it. But no blessing from the Colonel topped the gift of confidence given one afternoon in 1975, when Sanders arrived unexpectedly at Shelton’s factory and summoned the inventor to his car. Shelton says he got in and Sanders asked him, “Do you have anything to write on?”
“He basically started telling me to measure 20 grams of this herb and 10 grams of that spice and so on,” Shelton says. “And when he got through, he told me it would all add up to 100 grams. Then he said I should take that and mix it with a certain amount of soft winter wheat flour and that would be it.”
Aware that he’d been given the coveted secret recipe for the Colonel’s blend of 11 herbs and spices, Shelton returned to his office and checked the Colonel’s math: The list contained only 10 ingredients and totaled just 87 grams, which Shelton found puzzling. Then, several days later, an employee called to say, “‘I just ran into the Colonel, and he said you need 13 grams of this,’” Shelton recalls. He says he called his attorney, knowing that the fabled recipe was the exclusive property of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and was advised that “I didn’t want that recipe.”
Ever in pursuit of food-preparation efficiency, in 1980 Shelton created a cabinet for holding cooked food at optimum texture and temperature so restaurant drive-thrus could deliver meals faster. Dubbed CVap (due to its use of Shelton’s patented Controlled Vapor technology), the cabinet not only held food perfectly for extended periods, but chefs and engineers at Winston Industries soon realized it was exceptional for cooking foods very slowly, safely and at temperatures so low that shrinkage was drastically reduced.
Internationally recognized fine-dining chefs such as Charlie Trotter (Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s), Wylie Dufresne (Manhattan’s wd-50) and Norman Van Aken (Orlando’s Norman’s) saw CVap’s ability to cook any cut of meat, poultry and seafood to unusual degrees of tenderness and scooped up the machine for their operations. Even the 2012 James Beard Award-winning Modernist Cuisine — a $500 five-volume set of glamour-tech cookbooks published in 2011 — recognize CVap’s virtues. Louisville chefs Kathy Cary (Lilly’s: A Kentucky Bistro), Edward Lee (610 Magnolia) and Dean Corbett (Equus/Jack’s Lounge and Corbett’s: An American Place) are CVap users.
“Not only does CVap work like nothing I’ve ever used, but Winston is just a fascinating guy,” says Corbett, who cooks his beef brisket for 24 hours in a CVap. “He’s this genius who mixes science and food, but not in some freaky way. He makes the best of both, and he’s very passionate about it.”
And perfectionistic as well, say friends and colleagues. Save for the casters mounted to the legs of every Winston cooking unit, every part is manufactured in-house at the Bluegrass Industrial Park plant. “The technology is unique to us, and we like it that way. When we build it, it meets our standards,” Shelton says.
Barry Yates, Winston Industries’ director of innovation and a 20-year employee, recalls a time when Shelton refused to fill a profitable order for Collectramatic fryers destined for Japan because buyers there insisted he modify it for their peculiarities, and at his cost. “Mostly he didn’t do it over the principle that such a fundamental change shouldn’t be done to his equipment,” Yates recalls. “By doing that he lost the whole Japanese (KFC) market, which was just about to take off, but it was his decision.” Japan’s KFCs would use other manufacturers’ fryers.
Shelton’s latest compulsion is the CVap Protein Pasteurizer, a recently completed machine he believes can slash the number of food-service-caused foodborne illness outbreaks in the U.S. In most cases, he says, food safety is a manageable issue, but where human disciplines fail, “I have created a device that can solve the problem with precision. Every year in this country, 300,000 cases of foodborne illness are reported, and some of those people die. That’s unacceptable to me. I may not be here much longer to help solve that problem, but this is a good start.”
Such statements about her father’s mortality make Valerie Shelton chuckle since her grandparents, aunts and uncles also lived long, vital lives. She says good genes, combined with her father’s drive to continue creating and working, play equal roles in his extended longevity. “None of them ever rested on their laurels; they were hardy, healthy outdoor people, like him,” she says. “My biggest fear is I’m going to retire before he does.”
Photo: courtesy of Nicholas Karem