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Colonel Sanders’ Rocky Road to Founding KFC
Not many entrepreneurs can pull off the double act of launching a highly profitable company and serving as its most famous spokesperson.
Frank Perdue managed to do just that in the late 20th century with his Perdue Farms, as did Orville Redenbacher with his namesake popcorn, and Dave Thomas with his fast-food chain, Wendy’s.
But none did it with the panache of Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders, who paved the way for Thomas, his former employee, and the others with commercials that turned audiences on to his "finger-lickin' good" menu beginning in the 1960s.
Sanders made an indelible impression with his pristine white suit and a demeanor that showcased the wisdom of an old-timer who had poured his passion into a company. But his sunny appearance also masked the travails of a lifetime of hard work, encompassing his rise from itinerant beginnings and numerous failures to emerge as an unlikely rags-to-riches success story.
Sanders Bounced Around Before Settling in Kentucky
Born September 9, 1890, on a farm outside of Henryville, Indiana, Sanders was thrust into what became the foundation of his life's work at age five when his dad died and he learned to cook for himself and his younger siblings.
However, it would be a long and winding road before Sanders brought his cooking skills to paying customers. Dropping out of school in the seventh grade, he spent the next 28 years bouncing between roles including as a farmhand, streetcar and railroad conductor, U.S. Army soldier, lawyer, ferryboat operator, insurance salesman, and midwife. Many of those jobs ended following a show of his explosive temper. Along the way, he married his first wife, Josephine King, and had three children, which meant dragging his young family to various stops through the Midwest and South.
In 1930, Sanders took over a Shell oil service station in Corbin, Kentucky. This stop also nearly became a brief life chapter when he was arrested for shooting a rival station owner, but instead it became his first long-term home and the starting point in his remarkable midlife transformation.
He Turned His Service Station Into a Popular Restaurant Destination
Taking a cue from the hungry travelers who stopped at his station, Sanders brought in a dining table and began offering a small selection of hot meals. When it became clear that an increasing supply of customers were showing up just for the food, he bought a neighboring property and opened the Sanders Café.
By 1935, Sanders was enough of a regional hotshot to earn the honorary designation of Kentucky colonel from Governor Ruby Laffoon. He also saw his restaurant's reputation expand thanks to positive reviews, including one that appeared in Duncan Hines' Adventures in Good Eating in 1939: "A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits."
Ah yes, the chicken. Sanders was already perfecting the "11 herbs and spices" recipe that would become famous worldwide, and in the same year of Hines' review, he discovered the pressure-cooker technique that enabled him to mass-produce fried chicken and seemingly establish his long-term financial stability. Recommissioned a Kentucky colonel in 1950, Sanders began acting the part by dressing as a traditional Southern gentleman and introducing himself as "Colonel Harland Sanders."
However, the acclaim and cash flow abruptly dried up when the rerouting of a major thoroughfare carried travelers away from the otherwise unremarkable outpost of Corbin. Facing an irreversible loss of business, Sanders was forced to sell his restaurant in 1956 for pennies on the dollar.
Sanders Built His KFC Empire in Retirement Age
Fortunately, the seeds of a solution had been planted a few years earlier when Sanders agreed to license his fried chicken recipe to Utah restaurateur Pete Harman. Armed with his $105-per-month Social Security lifeline, the 66-year-old hit the road with his second wife, Claudia Price, to find other restaurants willing to serve his Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It was a laborious process that led to countless nights of sleeping in the car, but Sanders’ combination of charm, persistence, and a quality product produced a steadily growing franchise base. By 1960, approximately 200 restaurants were selling Kentucky Fried Chicken across the United States and Canada; three years later, that number had tripled.
In 1964, Sanders passed the reins of his company to businessman Jack Massey and lawyer John Y. Brown, but that hardly meant retirement. Along with the $2 million in cash he received for the sale, 74-year-old Sanders agreed to a $40,000 annual salary to serve as an advisor and spokesman.
Thus began the triumphant final chapter of a life forged in adversity and hardened by years of fleeting successes. Appearing regularly on TV in his trademark white suit and black string tie, Colonel Sanders became an ambassador for both the company he built from scratch and Southern culinary culture. By 1974, he was traveling some 250,000 miles per year as a spokesman, and a poll conducted two years later found him to be the second most recognizable celebrity in the world.
He Remains a Recognizable Symbol of the Company
Finding it impossible to shake the habits built from a lifetime of hustling, Sanders continued to work until acute leukemia led to his death on December 16, 1980. Brown, his old business colleague turned governor, ordered the colonel’s body to lie in state in the Kentucky capital.
The memory of Sanders remained entwined with the company even as he drifted into the background in a new era, as exemplified by Kentucky Fried Chicken’s rebranding into KFC during the health-conscious 1990s.
But the aura of the old-timer proved tough to extinguish altogether. In the late ‘90s, KFC revived Sanders with a series of animated commercials that depicted him as a hip-hop-friendly elder who could dance and slam-dunk a basketball.
By 2015 he was back in the forefront with a rotating commercial cast of celebrity impersonators that included Jason Alexander, Rob Lowe, Ray Liotta, and Reba McIntire, proving that the legend of the irrepressible Colonel remains a powerful draw in popular culture.