Colonel Sanders (1890-1980) created the Kentucky Fried Chicken fast food chain at the age of 66. Pride in his product, high standards, and brilliant marketing help to establish him as an innovator in the fast food industry.
Harland David Sanders was born on a farm in Henryville, Indiana on September 9, 1890. His parents, Wilbert Sanders, a butcher, and Margaret Ann Dunleavy, a homemaker, also had two younger children. Sanders' father died when he was five, so his mother took a job peeling tomatoes in a canning factory and earned extra money by sewing at night. Sanders had to take care of his siblings, learning how to cook so he could feed them. He held his first job at the age of ten, working on a nearby farm. Because the family was so poor, Sanders left school after sixth grade so he could work full time. His mother, desperate to improve the financial situation of her family, married a produce farmer and moved the family to suburban Indianapolis when Sanders was 12. Sanders fought often with his new stepfather. Within a year, his mother sent him back to Clark county, Indiana.
Sanders worked as a farmhand for $15 a month, plus room and board, until he was 15 years old. He was then able to get a job as a streetcar conductor in New Albany, Indiana. In 1906, while still under age, Sanders enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent a year as a soldier in Cuba. After completing his military service, Sanders married Josephine King in Jasper, Alabama. The couple had three children. During the early years of their marriage, Sanders and his family moved to Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and finally back to Indiana. They divorced in 1947.
Launched First Company
Sanders held a variety of jobs. He sold insurance in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Then he started a steamboat ferry company that operated on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville, Kentucky. Eventually, Sanders took a job as secretary of the Columbus chamber of commerce. There he met an inventor who discovered how to operate natural gas lamps on a gas derived from carbide. Sanders bought the patent rights and launched a manufacturing company. Unfortunately, a rural electrification program made his company's product obsolete.
While working as a railroad man for the Illinois Central Railroad, Sanders took a correspondence course that allowed him to earn a law degree from Southern University. A local judge permitted him to use his law library and local lawyers helped his studies by explaining law terminology. When he lost his job with the railroad, Sanders began practicing law. He had some success in the legal field from about 1915 to the early 1920s, working in the Justice of the Peace courts in Little Rock, Arkansas. Sanders ruined his legal career, however, by getting into a brawl with a client in the courtroom. Although found innocent of assault and battery, Sanders' legal practice was through.
Became an Honorary Colonel
In 1929, Sanders moved to Corbin, Kentucky, a small town at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, and opened a gas station along U.S. Route 25. When tourists and traveling salespeople asked Sanders where they could get something to eat nearby, he got the idea of opening a small restaurant next to the gas station. The restaurant had one table and six chairs and specialized in Southern cooking such as pan fried chicken, ham, vegetables, and biscuits. Sanders moved his establishment across the street to a bigger location, with room for 142 seats, a motel and a service station. He took an eight-week course in restaurant and hotel management from Cornell University to learn more about the business. Sanders' café had a homey atmosphere, with no menu, but good food. But when restaurant critic, Duncan Hines, listed Sanders' place in Adventures in Good Eating in the 1930s, its popularity increased.
In 1935, the popular café so impressed Governor Ruby Laffoon that he made Sanders an honorary Kentucky colonel for his contribution to state cuisine. In 1937, Sanders tried to start a restaurant chain in Kentucky, but his attempt failed. Two years later, he opened another motel and restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, but this too failed.
Sanders continued to alter his chicken recipe to get the seasonings just right. In 1939, he devised a method to cook chicken quickly because customers would not wait 45 minutes for a batch to be fried up in an iron pan. Sanders used a pressure cooker, a new invention at the time, to cook chicken in nine minutes. He found that chicken cooked in this manner turned out to be moist and flavorful. Sanders' method is still being used today.
In 1949, Sanders was once again honored with the title of Kentucky colonel, this time by Lieutenant Governor Lawrence Weatherby. Sanders began using the title of "Colonel" and dressing in a white suit, white shirt, black string tie, black shoes, white mustache and goatee, and a cane-giving himself the appearance of a gentleman from the Old South. In 1949, Sanders married Claudia Ledington, an employee.
During World War II, gas rationing meant less travel, so Sanders had to shut down his motel. It reopened when the war ended. By 1953, his café was worth $165,000. In the early 1950s, Sanders signed up a few restaurant owners in an early form of franchise. He would ship them his seasoning, made from a secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices, if they agreed to pay him five cents for every chicken cooked with it. Pete Harman, a Utah restaurant owner who had met Sanders in Chicago at a seminar for restaurateurs, was his first franchisee. Harman, already a successful businessman, is credited with creating the marketing strategies that made Sanders' business a success. Harman is also responsible for inventing the name "Kentucky Fried Chicken," introducing the takeout bucket, and creating the slogan, "finger lickin' good."
In 1956, the federal government made plans to build a new highway, bypassing Corbin. The value of Sanders' site plummeted, and he auctioned off the property for $75,000 to pay his debts. At the age of 66 he was almost broke, living off a monthly Social Security check of $105 and some savings. Sanders then moved to Shelbyville, Kentucky.
A Secret Recipe Spelled Success
With nothing to lose, Sanders took his spices and pressure cooker and traveled throughout the U.S. in his 1946 Ford. He visited restaurants, trying to convince the owners to use his recipe. Sanders had no luck with the better restaurants, said John Neal, a franchisee. "They all threw him out of their places. He found a lot of wonderful hard-working men and women who operated various and sundry restaurants who took his methods and paid him a nickel a head. The Colonel shipped them the seasoning. That's literally how he got started."
By 1960, Sanders had 400 franchisees, and his image was being used to sell chicken throughout the country. By 1963, he made $300,000 a year in profits, before taxes. In 1996, the number of franchises had grown to over 5,000 units in the U.S. and 4,500 overseas. Sanders carefully guarded his secret recipe of herbs and spices, hiring two different suppliers to mix up batches, which he would then combine himself and mail to franchisees.
Sanders was a perfectionist. He often burst into a restaurant's kitchen to scold an employee for not cooking his gravy correctly. Sanders would then show him how to cook it right. "The thing I remember about the Colonel is that he was very particular about doing things right," said Jackie Trujillo, chairman of Harman Management. "He used to visit us often," she said. "Service, quality and cleanliness was No. 1. He never backed down from that."
Sold Company to Investors
In 1964, Sanders sold out to a group of investors, including John Y. Brown, Jr. and Jack Massey, for $2 million. He had been concerned about selling the business because he feared that the new owners might not maintain a high quality product. Friends and family finally persuaded the 74-year-old to part with his company. On January 6, 1964, he closed the deal. Besides the $2 million, he received a lifetime salary of $40,000 a year (later raised to $75,000). Sanders served as the company spokesman, making personal appearances and television commercials. He held on to his Canadian rights in the company and established a foundation in Canada, turning over his profits to charities, such as churches, hospitals, the Boy Scouts, and the Salvation Army. He also adopted 78 foreign orphans.
Kentucky Fried Chicken went public in 1969, and was acquired by Heublein Inc. two years later. In 1974, Sanders sued the company because he did not like changes they had made to the product. The suit was settled out of court for over a million dollars. R.J. Reynolds Industries acquired Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1982. It then passed to PepsiCo in 1986 for $840 million.
Honored with Museum and Landmark
In 1974, Sanders published his autobiography, Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin' Good. His daughter, Margaret Sanders, published Eleven Herbs and a Spicy Daughter: Col. Sanders' Secret of Success, in 1994.
Though he is said to have had a bad temper, Sanders inspired many in the restaurant industry by helping his franchisees, introducing a love for his product, and maintaining high standards. He has had a lasting impact on fast food, something he helped create. Industry leaders credit Sanders with being a stellar marketer. His innovations included selling busy people buckets of chicken to take home and using a character, himself, to sell a product.
Sanders died in Shelbyville, Kentucky on December 16, 1980, after a seven-month battle with leukemia. The Colonel Sanders Museum at Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters in Louisville contains a life-sized statue of Sanders in a small theater, his office-exactly as he left it, his white linen suit, cane, shirt and tie, one of his wife's dresses, and his original pressure cooker. In 1972, his first restaurant was named a Kentucky historical landmark.
Further Reading on Colonel Sanders
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 10, 1976-1980.
Pearce, John, The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast Food Empire, Doubleday, 1982.
Sanders, Harland, Life as I Have Known it Has Been Finger Linckin' Good, Creation House, 1974.
Sanders, Margaret, Eleven Herbs and a Spicy Daughter: Col.Sanders' Secret of Success, Starr Publishing Co., 1994.
Nation's Restaurant News, December 15, 1986; February 1996.