Harland Sanders 1890-1980
More than a good cook, Harland Sanders was an instinctive businessman who saw the possibilities for franchising his fast-food chicken restaurants at a time in his life when he almost thought of retiring. The now-global franchise of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) began as Sanders Café, a modest gas station kitchen in Kentucky. After a fire, he rebuilt with a restaurant and hotel that were popular with travelers-until a new interstate highway diverted traffic away from the spot. Sanders, than in his 50s, hung up his apron and prepared for retirement.
Convinced there was a larger market for his secret-recipe chicken, he set about selling it to restaurant owners door-to-door. What makes KFC’s Story unique is how the successful fast-food chicken chain and served as spokesman into late 80s. At 87, he testified against mandatory retirement before the U.S. House of Representatives.
Sanders was born on September 9, 1890 in a four-room house located 3 miles (5 km) east of Henryville, Indiana. He was the oldest of three children born to Wilbur David and Margaret Ann (née Dunlevy) Sanders. The family attended the Advent Christian Church. The family were of mostly Irish and English ancestry.
His father was a mild and affectionate man who worked his 80 acre farm, until he broke his leg after a fall. He then worked as a butcher in Henryville for two years. One summer afternoon in 1895, he came home with a fever and died later that day. Sanders’ mother obtained work in a tomato-canning factory; and the young Harland was required to look after and cook for his siblings. When he was 10 he began to work as a farmhand for local farmers Charlie Norris and Henry Monk.
Sanders’ mother remarried in 1902, and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana. Sanders had a tumultuous relationship with his stepfather, and in 1903 he dropped out of school, and went to live and work on a nearby farm. He then took a job painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. When he was 14 he moved to southern Indiana to work as a farmhand for Sam Wilson for two years. In 1906, with his mother’s approval, he left the area to live with his uncle in New Albany, Indiana. His uncle worked for the streetcar company, and secured Sanders a job as a conductor.
Sanders falsified his date of birth and enlisted in the United States Army in November 1906, completing his service commitment as a teamster in Cuba. He was honorably discharged after three months and in 1907 moved to Sheffield, Alabama, where an uncle lived. There, he met his brother Clarence who had also moved there in order to escape his stepfather. The uncle worked for the Southern Railroad, and secured Sanders a job there as a blacksmith’s helper in the workshops. After two months, Sanders moved to Jasper, Alabama where he got a job cleaning out the ash pans of trains from the Northern Alabama Railroad (a division of the Southern Railroad) when they had finished their run. Sanders progressed to become a fireman at the age of 16.
In 1909 Sanders found laboring work with the Norfolk and Western Railway. Whilst working on the railroad, he met Josephine King of Jasper, Alabama, and they were married shortly afterwards. They would go on to have a son, Harland, Jr., who died young in 1932 from infected tonsils, and two daughters, Margaret Sanders and Mildred Sanders Ruggles. He then found work as a fireman on the Illinois Central Railroad, and he and his family moved to Jackson, Tennessee. Meanwhile, Sanders studied law by correspondence at night through the La Salle Extension University. Sanders lost his job at Illinois after brawling with a work colleague. While Sanders moved to work for the Rock Island Railroad, Josephine and the children went to live with her parents. After a while, Sanders began to practice law in Little Rock for three years, and he earned enough fees for his family to move with him. His legal career ended after he got engaged in a courtroom brawl with his own client.
After that, Sanders moved back with his mother in Henryville, and went to work as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1916, the family moved to Jeffersonville, where Sanders got a job selling life insurance for the Prudential Life Insurance Company. Sanders was eventually fired for insubordination. He moved to Louisville and got a salesman job with Mutual Benefit Life of New Jersey.
In 1920, Sanders established a ferry boat company, which operated a boat on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville. He canvassed for funding, becoming a minority shareholder himself, and was appointed secretary of the company. The ferry was an instant success. In around 1922 he took a job as secretary at the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Indiana. He admitted to not being very good at the job, and resigned after less than a year. Sanders cashed in his ferry boat company shares for $22,000 and used the money to establish a company manufacturing acetylene lamps. The venture failed after Delco introduced an electric lamp that they sold on credit.
Sanders moved to Winchester, Kentucky, to work as a salesman for the Michelin Tire Company. He lost his job in 1924 when Michelin closed their New Jersey manufacturing plant. In 1924, by chance, he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky, who asked him to run a service station in Nicholasville. In 1930, the station closed as a result of the Great Depression.
In 1930, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in Corbin, Kentucky rent free, in return for paying them a percentage of sales. Sanders began to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks. Since he did not have a restaurant, he served the customers in his adjacent living quarters. He was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel in 1935 by Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon. His local popularity grew, and in 1939 food critic Duncan Hines visited Sanders’s restaurant and included it in Adventures in Good Eating, his guide to restaurants throughout the US. The entry read:
Corbin, KY. Sanders Court and Café
41 — Jct. with 25, 25 E. ½ Mi. N. of Corbin. Open all year except Xmas.
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. L. 50¢ to $1; D., 60¢ to $1
In July 1939 Sanders acquired a motel in Asheville, North Carolina. His Corbin restaurant and motel was destroyed in a fire in November 1939, and Sanders had it rebuilt as a motel with a 140 seat restaurant. By July 1940, Sanders had finalized his “Secret Recipe” for frying chicken in a pressure fryer that cooked the chicken faster than pan frying. As the United States entered World War II in December 1941, gas was rationed, and as the tourists dried up, Sanders was forced to close his Asheville motel. He went to work as a supervisor in Seattle until the latter part of 1942. He later ran cafeterias for the government at an Ordinance Works in Tennessee, followed by a job as an assistant manager at a cafeteria in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
He left his mistress, Claudia Ledington-Price, as manager of the Corbin restaurant and motel. In 1942 he sold the Asheville business. In 1947, he and Josephine divorced and Sanders married Claudia in 1949, as he had long desired. Sanders was “re-commissioned” as a Kentucky Colonel in 1949 by his friend, Governor Lawrence Wetherby.
In 1952, Sanders franchised “Kentucky Fried Chicken” for the first time, to Pete Harman of South Salt Lake, Utah, the operator of one of that city’s largest restaurants. In the first year of selling the product, restaurant sales more than tripled, with 75% of the increase coming from sales of fried chicken. For Harman, the addition of fried chicken was a way of differentiating his restaurant from competitors; in Utah, a product hailing from Kentucky was unique and evoked imagery of Southern hospitality. Don Anderson, a sign painter hired by Harman, coined the name Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Sanders signing his autograph, 1974.
At age 65 (around 1955), Sanders’ sold his Corbin outlet after the new Interstate 75 reduced his restaurant’s customer traffic. Sanders decided to begin to franchise his chicken concept in earnest, and traveled the US looking for suitable restaurants. After closing the Corbin site, Sanders and his wife Claudia opened a new restaurant and company headquarters in Shelbyville in 1959.
The franchise approach became highly successful; KFC was one of the first fast food chains to expand internationally, opening outlets in Canada and later in England, Mexico and Jamaica by the mid-1960s. The company’s rapid expansion to more than 600 locations became overwhelming for the aging Sanders. In 1964 he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation for $2 million to a partnership of Kentucky businessmen headed by John Y. Brown, Jr. (a then-29-year-old lawyer and future governor of Kentucky) and Jack C. Massey (a venture capitalist and entrepreneur), and he became a salaried brand ambassador. The initial deal did not include the Canadian operations (which Sanders retained) or the franchising rights in England, Florida, Utah, and Montana (which Sanders had already sold to others).
In 1965 Sanders moved to Mississauga, Ontario to oversee his Canadian franchises and continued to collect franchise and appearance fees both in Canada and in the U.S. Sanders bought and lived in a bungalow at 1337 Melton Drive in the Lakeview area of Mississauga from 1965 to 1980. In September 1970 he and his wife were baptized in the Jordan River. He also befriended Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.
Sanders and his wife reopened their Shelbyville restaurant as “Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady” and served KFC-style chicken there as part of a full-service dinner menu, and talked about expanding the restaurant into a chain. He was sued by the company for it.
In 1973, he sued Heublein Inc.—the then parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken—over the alleged misuse of his image in promoting products he had not helped develop. In 1975, Heublein Inc. unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publicly described their gravy as “wallpaper paste” to which “sludge” was added.
After reaching a settlement with Heublein, he sold the Colonel’s Lady restaurant, and it has continued to operate since then (currently as the “Claudia Sanders Dinner House”). It serves his “original recipe” fried chicken as part of its (non-fast-food) dinner menu, and it is the only non-KFC restaurant that serves an authorized version of the fried chicken recipe
Quote: “Tell customers there’s a secret in your product, and you’ve got their interest.”