Harland David Sanders
b. Sept. 9, 1890, Henryville, IN
d. Dec. 16, 1980, Shelbyville, KY
Founder of the world-renowned Kentucky Fried Chicken chain, later to be known as KFC. Born in Henryville, Indiana, Sanders' father died around 1896, forcing his mother to go to work to support the family. Harland was left at home to look after his brother and sister, and took care of most of the cooking. Sanders got his first job at 10, and left home at 12 when his mother remarried. For the next several years, Sanders worked odd jobs throughout the South. In 1930, Sanders began operating a restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, first at a service station, and later in a former motel. Having cooked for his family since the age of 7, Sanders was well-versed in Southern cuisine, and his restaurant soon gained a reputation as one of the finest places to dine along the highway.
In the early 1950's, an interstate bypass was built around Corbin. Sanders sold his business, and after clearing his debts, was left with nothing more than his Social Security income. However, when it came to the young and soon to be booming field of restaurant franchising, Sanders was one of the first to Get It. He wasn't going to build and run restaurants. He was going to get other people to cook and serve his chicken, and to pay him for the privelege.
Armed with a customized portable fryer, pre-mixed bags of ingredients containing those famous 11 herbs & spices. Sanders would stop in roadside restaurants and cook a full chicken dinner for the owner and staff. If they liked what they ate, Sanders cut them a deal: he would provide a cooker, and a steady supply of his pre-mixed herbs and spices. In exchange, the restauranteur would pay Sanders a nickel for each chicken sold. Pete Harman, of Salt Lake City, Utah, became the first Sanders franchisee in 1952. Harman is generally credited for inventing the name Kentucky Fried Chicken, hoping that to cold, bored Mormons, the name "Kentucky" and the visage of the kindly, bespectacled Colonel would inspire thoughts of Southern hospitality and down-home cooking. By 1964, more than 600 restaurants across the U.S bore the moniker 'featuring Kentucky Fried Chicken'.
In 1964, Sanders sold his interest in the franchising business to future Kentucky governor John Y. Brown, Jr. and a group of other investors for two million dollars. Sanders remained with the company as a spokesman, and in March of 1966, he bought the first 100 shares issued of KFC stock when the company was listed with the New York Stock Exchange. Sanders continued to travel in promotion of "his" business until he became ill with leukemia in early 1980. Following his death in December of that year, Sanders' body lay in state at the Kentucky State Capital in Frankfort.
Questions and answers with Harland Sanders
- Q: Was Colonel Sanders really a colonel?
- A: Yes and no. In 1935, Sanders was made an official Kentucky Colonel by the state governor, in recognition of his service to the culinary heritage of the state. He did in fact serve in the military for six months when he was 16, attaining the rank of private. That he was called Colonel throughout his life was at his own insistence, and it was a bit odd. Plenty of folks are Kentucky Colonels; my grandfather, Dave Thomas of Wendy's fame (who was at one point a Sanders franchisee), and just about every old man in Kentucky who knows someone who works in Frankfort. None of them call themselves Colonel. Sanders had style, and cultivated a classic image, single handedly creating the stereotypical image of the white-suited, string-tied Kentucky Colonel, but he wasn't a Civil War veteran!
- Q: How much of KFC's menu is Sanders responsibility?
- A: Not that much. The original recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken was the brainchild of Sanders himself. KFC avows that this recipe hasn't changed since the Colonel ironed the kinks out of it in the late 1930's, but many of us think otherwise. Some of the methods used in cooking the sides and other bits and bobs at KFC were originated by Sanders, but many have been altered or reformulated in the years since Sanders started the franchise business. Sanders himself didn't like many of the innovations added to the menu in the years after KFC was sold to investors; he was reported to have once said that the original extra crispy chicken tasted like "a damn doughball stuck on a chicken."
- Q: What restaurants did Sanders himself actually operate?
- A: There were two: the original restaurant at Corbin, and a restaurant off of U.S 60 in Shelby County called Claudia Sanders Dinner House (named for Sanders' wife). In 1959, Sanders and his wife moved into Shelbyville, Kentucky, purchasing Blackwood Hall on U.S 60. A large building was constructed behind the house to hold office and warehouse space, which became disused after the business was sold in 1964. Sanders was not content to sit idle, and so opened a traditional-style restaurant in the vacant building. While, due to the terms of the sale of the business, the food served at the Claudia Sanders Dinner House (universally referred to by locals as 'the Colonel's lady') could not be called "Kentucky Fried Chicken", many maintain that the food served there was much closer to the Colonel's original cooking than the fast food served throughout the country. While Blackwood Hall, the 125-year-old one-time Sanders residence still stands, the original Colonel's Lady burned to the ground in May 1999 (the day after Mother's Day, in fact). It was rebuilt, with expanded facilities for hosting private parties and conferences (triggering some interesting rumors among residents of nearby Shelbyville following a rash of businesses burning following periods of financial struggle, only to be re-opened bigger and better than ever. But I'm sure there's nothing to that. Really.)
- Q: What's the deal with that cartoon Colonel Sanders guy?
- A: It's a marketing gimmick. And yes, the old man is rolling in his grave. Go Colonel, go colonel!
- Q: Did Col. Sanders at one point sponsor a mandolin band for elementary school children in Shelby County, Kentucky?
- A: Yes. Yes he did. We're not sure why. My dad was a member, actually.
- Q: Mandolins?
- A: Your guess is as good as mine, dude. My dad didn't really get it either.
Harland Sanders was a quirky and tenacious old man, and in his own way a visionary. Pounding the roads with his cooker and his sack of herbs and spices, Sanders created the modern fast-food franchise. Among those who knew him, he was renowned as a cranky perfectionist in business, even after the business was sold, he was known for randomly dropping in on franchises to make sure that they were doing things the "right way", and was liable to publicly dress down employees, owners, and managers for failing to produce quality chicken. Statues of the old man are to be found throughout Kentucky: a bust sits in the state capital, and a near-life size statue of him greets travelers arriving at the Standiford Field airport in Louisville, Kentucky (technically now called Louisville International Airport, but the airport code is still SDF, and you can only get to another country if you're a UPS package). Sanders remains one of the most recognizable public figures in the world. Even among those who don't think he's real!