Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has carved out a slice of the fast-food market the world over for nearly 70 finger-licking-good years. But Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder and face of the franchise chain, wasn’t always in the chicken business.
Here’s a quick look into the history and legacy of Colonel Sanders.
The early years
Harland David Sanders was born to Margaret Anne and Wilbur David Sanders in a four-room farmhouse, on an 80-acre farm, outside of Henryville, Indiana, on September 9, 1890.
After his father passed in 1895, Harland was left to fend for and feed his two younger siblings while his mother worked away from home for days at a time. By age 7, Harland was sharpening his skills with breads, vegetables, and meats.
Sanders dropped out of seventh grade and left home at the age of 14. He worked his way through a number of jobs from 1906 to 1952 before the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise would open:
Some of Colonel Sanders’ jobs
–Street car conductor
–Teamster for United States Army in Cuba
–Steam engine stoker
–Law student/practicing lawyer
–Life insurance salesman
–Ferry boat company founder
–Secretary of Indiana Chamber of Commerce
–Acetylene lamp manufacturing company founder
–Oil company service station manager
Shootouts with competitors, selling chicken, and becoming the Colonel
From gun fights to perfecting his eleven herbs and spices recipe, Harland Sanders made a name for himself in Kentucky during the 1930s.
Shootout with the competition
Sanders was a passionate man, and no instance demonstrates that passion quite like the shootout with a service station rival during his time in North Corbin, Kentucky.
At the time, Sanders ran a Shell Oil service station, and a man named Matt Stewart ran a rival Standard Oil station down the road. Their competition came to a head when Sanders and Stewart butted heads over painting a sign for advertisement.
Sanders and two visiting Shell managers ran down the street, guns in-hand, when they saw Stewart re-painting the sign. Stewart opened fire when he saw Sanders coming.
In the ensuing gunfight, Shell manager Robert Gibson was shot and killed, and Sanders shot and wounded Stewart. All three of the surviving men were arrested. Stewart was sentenced to 18 years in prison, and Sanders (as well as Shell manager H.D. Shelburne) was let off without jail time.
Sanders Court and Café
Sanders began selling homestyle food out of his living quarters near the Shell station in North Corbin. What started as cooking for his family turned into cooking for tourists and travelers.
His chicken, steaks, and country ham were so popular that Harland removed the gas pumps and opened Sanders Court and Café in place of the service station. The popularity garnered a positive review from food critic Duncan Hines in 1939, and the restaurant was featured in his book Adventures in Good Eating.
Harland finalized his “11 secret herbs and spices” chicken seasoning recipe—along with his signature pressure cooker method for quickly frying chicken—by 1940.
What’s the Colonel stand for?
The colonel in Colonel Sanders signifies recognition as a Kentucky colonel, the highest honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. This honor recognizes individuals for “noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation.”
In 1935, Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon commissioned Sanders as a Kentucky colonel, and Governor Lawrence Wetherby re-commissioned Sanders in 1950. The rest, they say, is history.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
Colonel Sanders left Kentucky after selling, what he believed, to be his doomed restaurant. New highway construction promised to take business away from Sanders Court and Café rather than toward it, so Sanders called it quits.
He traveled the country with his unique recipe and began franchising the chicken, with restaurant owners paying a franchise fee in exchange for the Colonel’s secret blend of herbs and spices. The concept and the chicken caught on.
The first official Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise began in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952 under the supervision of restaurant owner Pete Harman. Harman franchised the chicken recipe, and in doing so tripled sales at his restaurant.
Sanders franchised with more than a half dozen franchisees over the next few years, including Dave Thomas (future founder of Wendy’s). By 1956, KFC had its iconic name, its iconic “finger-licking good” slogan, and its iconic rotating chicken bucket sign.
Colonel Sanders’ KFC legacy
In 1963, with more than 600 franchises across the country, KFC was the largest fast food operation in the United States.
Sanders sold the company to John Y. Brown, Jr. and Jack C. Massey for $2 million in 1964. The contract provided a lifetime salary for Sanders while making him the quality controller and official company trademark.
By 1971, KFC would go public as a company, buy back all of its 600+ franchises, expand to 48 different countries, and be sold to the Connecticut-based Heublein. Food quality went down, with the Colonel himself infamously speaking out against the “wallpaper paste” gravy and the new “fried doughball” crispy recipe.
The Colonel’s perception and interaction with the KFC brand soured and remained sour until his death from acute leukemia on December 16, 1980. His image is still associated with Kentucky Friend Chicken, and his face is still smiling on the logo for the company in 2019.