“The food I’ve liked in my time is American country cookin’.” So says the famous Colonel Harland Sanders in his autobiography and cookbook. The Southern cook turned American legend began cooking as soon as he was tall enough to reach the skillet, and he built his fortune, much like his biscuits, from scratch.
Sanders was born on a rural Kentucky farm in 1890. When his father died in 1896, his mother was forced to join the workforce, leaving Sanders home alone to fend (and cook) for himself and his younger siblings. Having watched his mother closely over the first five years of his life, Sanders quickly and easily learned to maneuver his way around a Southern kitchen. He fondly recalls in his autobiography his first successful loaf of light bread, which he made entirely from memory, and how he proudly carried it across miles of rural land, brother and sister in tow, to show to his mother while she worked peeling tomatoes. Sanders’ natural knack for the kitchen lent him a predilection for success in the restaurant industry—but not before he had exhausted his other options.
Throughout his youth Sanders worked at various local farms to help support his family and—after his mother’s remarriage to a story-book evil step-father—to support himself. From farm-hand Sanders moved on to streetcar conductor, army private, blacksmith assistant, rail yard fireman, insurance salesman, law student and service station operator for Standard Oil. Sanders’ appreciation for hard work earned him a spot in multiple vocations, but his impulse to travel and his pursuance for success inevitably drove him out and onto the next job. When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Sanders found himself unable to pay his rent on his Standard Oil station and was forced once again to abandon his venture. Shell Gasoline, however, heard of Sanders’ plight, and since the wily man was known across Kentucky for selling more gas and giving better service than any of his competitors, the gas giant offered him a station in Corbin, Kentucky, rent-free. Sanders accepted and once again moved his family in search of the fabled American dream. Little did he know, this time he would actually find it.
In 1930 Sanders opened the small station and labeled it Sanders Servistation and Café. The marketing genius of Sanders struck home and he began painting “Sanders Servistation and Café” on the sides of barns within a 150-mile radius (he chose café, in fact, because it was shorter than restaurant and easily fit onto the planks of the barns). His strategy—and his cooking—worked, and according to Sanders one customer even said, “I’ve been a-followin’ your signs for 200 miles. I thought I’d find a twelve-story building when I got here. It’s no twelve-story building, but you sure don’t have to apologize to anybody for your food.” Originally, Sanders offered his family’s own food to passing travelers. Whatever the family was eating for lunch, customers were eating for lunch. He called his personal fare “home meal replacements” and marketed them as “Sunday Dinner, 7 Days a Week” to traveling families. Whatever he called it, his food was verifiably delicious, and word quickly spread of Sanders Café.
Sanders quickly became an icon of Kentucky. The governor, Ruby Laffoon, made a special trip to the small café in Corbin to award Sanders an honorary Colonel title in honor of his contributions to the state’s cuisine. Soon thereafter he expanded the small café and service station to include a large motel and a restaurant housing 142 seats. With the invention of pressure cookers in 1939, Sanders’ business changed dramatically. With traditional, slow frying methods, Sanders had rarely been able to provide his guests with a Southern staple: fried chicken. When he incorporated pressure cookers into his kitchen, Sanders found he was able to efficiently fry chicken to crisp, delectable perfection. And so, in 1940, the famous Original Recipe was born.
The Original Recipe was, as they say, “finger lickin’ good.” The recipe propelled Colonel Sanders and his fried chicken into the next level of culinary stardom. Franchising became an imminent reality, and Sanders himself began driving from town to town and state to state cooking his famous fried chicken for restaurant owners and their employees. In 1952, he chose Pete Harman of Salt Lake City to open his first franchise and charged a royalty of five cents per chicken sold. Despite the success of his restaurant and franchise, Sanders faced one more daunting setback: in 1955, an Interstate opened near Corbin, Kentucky, that completely by-passed the small café-turned-tourist-destination. Without the sure income of wandering travelers, Sanders was forced to close Sanders Café and take to the road once more.
This time, however, was different. Sanders already knew how to sell his franchise and, more specifically, his Original Recipe. Sanders used his fame to his advantage and quickly began establishing franchises nationwide. In 1957, Kentucky Fried Chicken found its new home in the iconic bucket and by 1960 Sanders had opened 190 KFC franchises in the United States and Canada. Even after he sold his interest for $2 million (to a group of investors headed by the future governor of Kentucky, John Y. Brown, Jr., no less), Sanders continued to tour the country—and eventually, the world—as spokesman for his now-famous fried fowl.
When Colonel Sanders died in 1980, flags in Kentucky flew at half-mast for four days. The state and the nation honored Sanders, not only because of his place in the American cultural spotlight, but also because of what he represented: a self-made man who epitomized the purely American ideology of diligence and self-making, who characterized our unfailing philosophy of hard work and success. And even more than that, Sanders maintained his Southern humility despite, or perhaps because of, his affluence. When describing his first restaurant in his autobiography, Sanders captured his own essence: “Millionaires and truck drivers all ate off that same table. They were all the same to me.” Sanders’ diligence and modest simplicity earned him (and his Southern fried chicken) a place in the world’s hearts and stomachs for generations to come.