May 12, 2017


Harland Sanders was the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which emerged as a fast-food sensation in the 1960s. He left home as a young lad, and did a variety of jobs including that of a farm help, conductor, railroad fireman, salesman and a soldier in the U.S Army, but found it difficult to keep a job for long. He began cooking chicken for customers at his service station in Corbin, Kentucky, during the height of the Great Depression. After years of experimentation, he achieved his secret mix of 11 herbs and spices. The pressure cooker, a novelty at that time, was used by him for cooking the chicken. It reduced the preparation time and enabled him to serve more customers. He was given the honorific title 'Colonel'—something he took seriously, and would dress in a typical fashion. Later, he franchised Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants around the country. In 1964, when he sold his share in the company - it already had 600 outlets nationwide and some abroad. He continued to be associated with the company as its spokesman and brand ambassador. He published his autobiography, ‘Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin' Good’. Now, over a billion of his “finger lickin’ good” chicken is served every year, in more than 80 countries.
The real Col. Sanders was an entrepreneur who didn't become a professional chef until he was 40, didn't franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was 62, and didn't become an icon until after he sold his company at 75.
According to a 1970 New Yorker profile by William Whitworth, as well as biographies from Bio and the University of Houston, here are the highlights of the Colonel's remarkable rise to success.
Harland Sanders was born in 1890 and grew up on a farm in Indiana. When he was 6 years old, Sanders' father died, leaving him to take care of his younger brother and sister while his mom spent long days working. One of these responsibilities was feeding his siblings, and by age 7 he was already a decent cook, according to the New Yorker.
His mom remarried when he was 12. Because his new stepfather didn't like the boys around, Sanders' brother was sent to live with an aunt while he was sent to work on a farm about 80 miles away.
Sanders soon realized he would rather work all day than go to school, so he dropped out in the seventh grade.
In addition to a stint in Cuba with the Army, Sanders spent the first half of his life working a series of odd jobs, including stoking the steam engines of trains throughout the South, selling insurance, selling tires, making lighting systems, and operating a ferry boat.
He acquired a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, in 1930 and began serving classic Southern dishes to travelers. The location became known for its food, and Sanders eventually got rid of the service station's gas pump and converted the location to a full-fledged restaurant.
His breakthrough came in 1939 when he found that frying his chicken and its signature "11 herbs and spices" in a new device, a pressure cooker (different from the ones used today), resulted in the ideal consistency he had been looking for.
Sanders' restaurant enjoyed great popularity over the next decade, and in 1950 the governor of Kentucky named him colonel, the highest title of honor the state can give. Sanders began dressing the part, adopting the white suit and Kentucky colonel tie that would help make him a pop-culture icon.
In 1952, he made a deal with his restaurateur friend, Pete Harman, to sell his chicken dish as "Kentucky Fried Chicken" in exchange for a 4-cent royalty on every piece sold. After it became a top-selling item, Sanders made the same deal with several other local restaurants.
Things were going great, but when a new interstate bypassed Sanders' restaurant, it spelled doom.
He sold the location at a loss in 1956, leaving his $105 monthly Social Security check as his only income. Sanders then decided that he was not going to settle for a quiet retirement.
kfc signA KFC and Sanders Cafe sign at the site of Sanders' Corbin, Kentucky, restaurant where he developed his signature fried chicken.
Since he'd closed his restaurant, the Colonel decided to dedicate himself fully to the franchising side project he'd started four years earlier.
He hit the road with his wife, the car packed with a couple pressure cookers, flour, and spice blends. He would enter a restaurant, offer to cook his chicken, and then make a deal if the owner liked what they tasted.
By 1963, Sanders was fielding franchise requests without having to put in the legwork, and had more than 600 restaurants across the US and Canada selling Kentucky Fried Chicken. That October, he was approached by John Y. Brown, Jr., "an aggressive young lawyer" as the New Yorker puts it, and a venture capitalist named Jack C. Massey who wanted to buy the franchise rights.
Sanders was initially reluctant, but after weeks of persuasion, he agreed to sell his rights for $2 million ($15.1 million in 2015 dollars) in January 1965, and the deal went through in March.
Under the contract, the company Kentucky Fried Chicken would establish its own restaurants around the world and would not compromise the chicken recipe. Sanders was to have a lifetime salary of $40,000 (later upped to $75,000), a seat on the board, majority ownership of KFC's Canadian franchises, and would serve as the company's brand ambassador.
Sanders wasn't happy to let go of his baby, but at 75, he decided that it would be best to see his company continue to grow beyond his capacity.
The New Yorker profile noted that some of his friends believed Sanders was shorted on the deal, but it also shows that Sanders turned down stock in the company and did not negotiate for a higher price.
It seems Sanders' pursuit was never really about becoming rich, but rather about becoming renowned for his food. That's why he constantly grumbled and swore about the more profitable but lower quality gravy that the corporate KFC began producing.
"If you were a franchisee turning out perfect gravy but making very little money for the company and I was a franchisee making lots of money for the company but serving gravy that was merely excellent, the Colonel would think that you were great and I was a bum," a KFC executive told the New Yorker. "With the Colonel, it isn't money that counts, it's artistic talent."
Sanders spent the latter years of his life giving interviews on talk shows and appearing in commercials, like this one from 1969:
The University of Houston, which honors Sanders in its Hospitality Industry Hall of Fame, says that up until his death in 1980, the Colonel traveled 250,000 miles each year visiting KFC locations and promoting the brand in the media.
Brown, who sold his stake in KFC in 1971 for $284 million, became governor of Kentucky in 1979. When Sanders died the next year, Brown said Sanders was "a real legend" and "the spirit of the American dream," the New York Times reported.
Sanders may have lacked the motivation to become as wealthy as he could have been, but he's now known in 115 countries for his favorite fried chicken recipe, which is more than he ever could have hoped for when he hit the road at age 65 with a car full of cooking supplies.

7 Things You Didn't Know About the Real Colonel Sanders

The chicken chain's recent marketing campaign has brought Colonel Sanders back to American television screens, embodied first by Darrell Hammond and now by Norm Macdonald. The move has been controversial: any over-the-top portrayal of a real human by a celebrity is going to rub some people the wrong way. (And yes, Colonel Sanders was indeed a real human; a study referenced in the 2012 book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream showed that less than 40 percent of Americans aged 19 to 25 were aware of that.) 
However, KFC's biggest misstep has been the sanitization of the Colonel. As our own Ray Hennessey wrote, "The new Colonel is a caricature, carefully choreographed by the company and its creative hired hands. Instead of resurrecting the Colonel to lead KFC's sales back to their former fried glory, the company has instead unleashed a childish pantomime that people old enough to remember Colonel Sanders don't like and people too young to know him can't possibly understand."
KFC has been eager to celebrate kitschy parts of the Colonel's history, while ignoring more complex attributes that made him both successful and dangerous to the brand while alive. Here are a few of the most interesting facts about Colonel Sanders that many people don't know – including a few that KFC probably would rather gloss over.

1. For most of his life, he was a terrible businessman.

Most customers probably don't realize that the Colonel only became a successful restaurateur after failed careers as a lawyer, insurance salesman, lamp salesman and tire salesman. Sanders often made unwise business gambles and had a habit of getting into fights that resulted in being fired – something that suited him as a self-employed entrepreneur, but that was less ideal as a company spokesperson later in life.

2. He once shot someone for his brand.

What Sanders lacked in business skills, he more than made up for in passion. When Sanders painted a large sign pointing potential customers from the highway toward his gas station in Corbin, Ky. (it would eventually expand into Sander's first cafe), he enraged the owner of a competing gas station, Matt Stewart. Stewart painted over Sanders' sign, leading to Sanders threatening to "blow [his] goddamn head off" and repainting the sign himself.
When Sanders discovered Stewart once again painting over the sign, he and two Shell officials ran to catch him red handed, heavily armed. In the resulting gun fight, the Shell manager was killed and Sanders shot Stewart in the shoulder. KFC currently has a purposefully poorly acted reenactment of the fight that gave Sanders complete control over the gas station market in the area after his competition was sent to jail for murder.

3. He cheated on his wife (a lot). 

While KFC loves certain quirky details about Sanders personal life, one of the facts KFC chooses not to highlight is his relationship with women, especially his two wives. Sanders married his first wife, Josephine, at the young age of 19. According to Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, his second wife's nephew said Josephine wasn't interested in a sexual relationship after giving birth to three children. So, Sanders "found what he needed to find in other places."
One outlet for Sanders' sexual energies was Claudia Ledington, a former waitress at Sanders' first restaurant, Sanders Cafe. Claudia and Sanders wed in 1949, after an ongoing affair and two years after his divorce with Josephine. It would be Claudia that would support Sanders in transforming KFC from a restaurant with a good chicken recipe to a national brand.
Throughout his life, Sanders was notoriously licentious. Sanders' biographer, John Ed Pearce, recalls a woman at the Chamber of Commerce saying that whenever the Colonel came in she had to beat his hands off of her. A 1970 New Yorker article quotes him observing crowds of housewives seeking autographs saying: “Umm, that gal’s let herself go… Look at the size of that one… I don’t know when I’ve seen so many fat ones… Lord, look at 'em waddle." In short, if the Colonel was alive today, it wouldn't be shocking to see his name come up in the Ashley Madison leak.

4. He's not a military colonel.

If you're not from Kentucky, you may have assumed that Sanders served as a military leader at some point in his long life. In fact, he was a Kentucky colonel, a title of honor awarded by the state of Kentucky. Sanders became a colonel in 1935 as the founder and owner of the gas station-adjacent restaurant Sanders Cafe, but misplaced his certificate, receiving his second colonelship in 1949.
In the 1950s, Sanders began marketing himself as a southern gentleman and Kentucky colonel, dying his beard white, crafting a string tie and donning his iconic white suit. As he franchised his concept starting in the '50s, selling the recipe for his Kentucky fried chicken to restaurants across the U.S., this identity as a Kentucky colonel linked Sanders to a southern ideal that lent the Indiana-born man an air of legitimacy.

5. He only made $2 million selling KFC.

After KFC went from a single cafe to a franchised concept, Sanders sold the business in 1964, feeling out of his league at the age of 75 as the chain rapidly grew. The $2 million, plus an ongoing salary to remain the face of the brand wasn't a terrible deal. However, after the company's profitable IPO, in which shareholders made millions, Sanders began to feel as though he got the short end of the stick.
At the company's first franchisee convention after the IPO, Sanders took the stage and spent 40 minutes railing against management. He claimed executives were thinking only about the short-term and ruining his reputation. While he failed to win over the franchisees and went on to continue his duties as a spokesperson, it seems a part of him remained convinced he had been tricked into giving up his business.

6. He tried to sue KFC for $122 million.

After KFC was sold to Heublein in 1971, Sanders' appetite for disruption grew. When the chain denied him the right to open an antebellum-themed restaurant selling Original Recipe chicken, Sanders sued the company for $122 million. He eventually settled out of court for $1 million and a promise that the Colonel would stop embarrassing the company. Sanders did not keep up his end of the bargain.

7. According to him, KFC doesn't use the famous secret original recipe of 11 herbs and spices.

While very few people in the world know exactly what is in Colonel Sanders' mix of 11 secret herbs and spices, we do know that the Colonel said many times in his life that KFC stopped using his recipe. As KFC is intensely protective of the recipe, it is a difficult matter to fact check. The chain reports that it keeps Colonel Sanders' handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices safely locked away in a vault, utilizing two suppliers to preserve that secrecy of the ingredients. 
Whether or not the Colonel's original recipe is in use today, it is clear that Sanders was dismissive of KFC's menu in his final years. In 1970, the New Yorker quoted him saying the company's new gravy recipe “ain’t fit for my dogs.” While the chain turned business around and reportedly improved food quality in the '80s under new leadership, Sanders' wasn't around to see it. He died on Dec. 16, 1980, at the age of 90.

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