Kentucky Fried Chicken
Raised in poverty, Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Harland Sanders—better known as Colonel Sanders—achieved extraordinary success at an age when most people choose to retire. Before that, he had struggled for decades with various small business ventures. Only one had really panned out, and even it ultimately fell victim to fate. Then he combined his cooking skills and marketing savvy to launch a product that figured prominently in the phenomenal growth of fast-food enterprises during the 1960s and beyond. Almost single-handedly, Sanders turned his pressure-cooked, "finger-lickin' good" chicken, seasoned with a blend of his "11 secret herbs and spices," into a multimillion-dollar business that revolutionized the American restaurant industry.
The oldest of three children, Harland Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, on a farm near Henryville, Indiana. His father died when Harland was six, leaving his mother behind to make ends meet with whatever jobs she could find. While she was off working, her children were often home alone for days at a time and had to scrounge around for their own food, which they also prepared themselves. Thus, Sanders was already focused emotionally on food by the age of seven, when he "was excelling in bread and vegetables, and coming along nicely in meat," as he once told William Whitworth in a New Yorker profile.
Sanders was raised according to the strict teachings of conservatism and religious fundamentalism. From an early age he learned self-reliance and developed a love of work, a suspicion of welfare, and an intense dislike of vice. "Mom didn't spare the rod if we disobeyed her," he recalled in the New Yorker.
When Sanders was 12, his mother remarried. Because her new husband disliked the children, they were all sent away to live elsewhere. Young Harland went to work as a farmhand in Indiana, earning about $15 a month. He quit several years later and then held a series of menial, low-paying jobs. His formal education ended in the seventh grade, but later in life he obtained two degrees from correspondence schools.
Sanders' first marriage lasted 39 years and produced three children before it ended in divorce. In 1948 he married Claudia Ledington and remained with her until his death in 1980. He was described in the New Yorker profile as a "perfectionist" in matters of business. A firm believer in hard work, he expected the same from his franchise owners and insisted that they maintain the high standards he had developed for his product. Sanders was also known for his quick temper and sometimes crude language.
Sanders was given the honorary title of "Colonel" from the governor of Kentucky in 1936 and received the Horatio Alger Award from Norman Vincent Peale in 1965. He established the Harland Sanders Foundation during the 1970s and donated much of his wealth to churches, hospitals and institutions such as the Salvation Army and the Boy Scouts. Also in his later years, he adopted 78 orphans from overseas.
In 1974, Sanders published a memoir, Life as I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin' Good. Believing his children should earn their own way in the world, he announced plans to leave his entire estate to charity after his death. He died of pneumonia in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 16, 1980.
For most of his life, Sanders worked a variety of low-paying jobs to support himself and his family, including as a painter, streetcar conductor, salesman, and ferryboat operator. He also spent a year in the army and a couple of years with various railroad companies. It was during the time he worked on the railroad that Sanders took a correspondence school course and earned a law degree from Southern University that allowed him to work as a Justice of the Peace in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In 1929, Sanders opened a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. Before long he was providing home-cooked meals to the truck drivers who stopped by to fill up their tanks. His specialties were the Southern-style favorites he had learned from his mother such as ham, fried chicken, fresh vegetables, and biscuits. His meals eventually became so popular that he closed the filling station to open a restaurant he named Sanders' Cafe. An endorsement by the influential food writer Duncan Hines in his book Adventures in Good Eating encouraged Sanders to expand his cafe to seat nearly 150 people while retaining the homey atmosphere of the original establishment. He also schooled himself in the finer points of running his business by taking an eight-week course in hotel and restaurant management at Cornell University in upstate New York.
Fried chicken was a staple on the cafe's menu, but Sanders was not happy with the typical cooking methods. Pan-frying was time-consuming, and deep-fat frying produced chicken that did not meet his high standards. In 1939, Sanders experimented with the newly invented pressure cooker and came up with a process that produced moist and tasty fried chicken in only eight or nine minutes. He also experimented with seasonings and eventually perfected a blend of 11 herbs and spices that produced the results he wanted. This secret recipe was used on all of the chicken prepared at Sanders' Cafe and is still used today in Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises.
So popular was Sanders' Cafe that in 1935 Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon made Sanders an honorary colonel in recognition of his contributions to the state's cuisine. By 1953 the business was valued at $165,000, and its owner seemed headed for a comfortable retirement. But fate intervened when a new interstate highway diverted traffic away from Sanders' Cafe and customers no longer sought out the quaint restaurant. Sanders was forced to sell off everything at auction, obtaining only $75,000 for his once-thriving business. After paying off his debts, he had nothing left but a small Social Security pension.
But the 66-year-old Sanders was not about to quit. Instead, he worked out a plan. He remembered that several years earlier he had sold his chicken recipe to a restaurant in Utah. Their success had greatly impressed other restaurant owners, who offered to pay Sanders $.04 for every chicken they cooked using his special method. So he decided to expand on this idea. Armed with his pressure cooker and a supply of his secret seasonings, Sanders took to the road and set out to establish a franchise. He cooked his chicken for restaurant owners and then for customers. If they liked it, he offered the restaurant a deal that guaranteed him $.04 for every chicken cooked according to his recipe.
Sanders signed up only five franchises in his first two years. But by 1960, just four years after he had launched his plan, more than 200 establishments in the United States and Canada were offering "Kentucky Fried Chicken" to eager customers. Sanders soon stopped traveling to concentrate on managing his growing business.
Chronology: Colonel Sanders
1929: Opened filling station in Corbin, Kentucky, and was soon providing meals for truckers.
1939: Experimented with pressure cooker to perfect chicken recipe.
1956: Launched Kentucky Fried Chicken concept by selling chicken recipe to franchisees.
1964: Sold Kentucky Fried Chicken to John Y. Brown, Jr., and Jack Massey.
1970: Resigned from board of directors of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
One of the first people to sign on with Sanders was businessman Pete Harman of Utah. He created the marketing strategies that helped the enterprise survive its first few years. The take-out bucket was especially successful; before it was introduced, the chicken was only available as a menu item for consumption in the restaurant. Harman's company also came up with the name "Kentucky Fried Chicken" and its famous slogan, "finger lickin' good."
By this time, Sanders had developed a distinctive look that suggested the genteel Southern life. He wore a white suit and shirt with a black string tie, sported a white goatee, and carried a cane. The Colonel's image quickly became his company's trademark as the public began to link his gentlemanly appearance with Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Meanwhile, Sanders was actively involved in running his new business from the office building he had constructed behind his home. He did his own bookkeeping, and his wife mixed up and mailed batches of the secret spice mixture to franchisees. By 1963 there were more than 600 Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. As for the 73-year-old Sanders, he was earning $300,000 a year and supervising 17 employees.
But Sanders found such success exhausting. The popularity of his chicken, he remarked to a Newsweek reporter, "was beginning to run right over me and mash me flat." Although he had previously turned down several offers to buy his business for fear the quality of the food would suffer under new owners, he finally agreed to sell in late 1963. The buyers were Nashville millionaire Jack Massey and his partner, John Y. Brown, Jr., a young, would-be entrepreneur who was eager to apply modern sales and management strategies to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Thus, on January 6, 1964, in a move that Nation's Restaurant News claims Sanders later regretted, he signed a contract turning over the U.S. part of his business to Massey and Brown. (He retained ownership of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Canada.) Under the terms of their agreement, he received $2 million in addition to a lifetime annual salary of $40,000 for publicity and advisory work. (This amount was later increased to $75,000.) Sanders was also guaranteed a spot on the Kentucky Fried Chicken board of directors until 1970.
Under Brown's leadership, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now known simply as KFC) experienced astronomical growth. Aggressive advertising and marketing campaigns catapulted the business from 600 franchises in 1964 to 3,500 in 1971. Outlets were converted from sit-down restaurants to take-out establishments. At the time it was purchased by Heublein, Inc., in 1971, the company posted sales of $700 million, making it one of the biggest investment successes of the 1960s. R.J. Reynolds Industries bought the company in 1982, and four years later it changed hands once again when PepsiCo Inc. acquired it for $840 million. In 1997 PepsiCo spun off KFC with its two other restaurant chains, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, to form Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. As of 1996, there were more than 5,000 KFC franchises in the United States and 4,500 overseas, with worldwide sales exceeding $7.3 billion.
Social and Economic Impact
Harland Sanders' work ethic, along with his creative approach to doing business, made him one of the pioneers of a new industry. Before he established his chicken franchises, there really was no such thing as fast food in the United States. But Sanders realized that Americans during the 1940s and 1950s were increasingly on the move and needed places to eat while traveling that were clean and convenient with speedy, dependable service and quality food. His accomplishments in fast-food franchising paved the way for similar businesses to grow and thrive to the point where they are now a central part of American life. For example, Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's International, began his career with a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Columbus, Ohio.
Sanders employed innovative marketing techniques to expand his business. His very image as a Southern gentleman proved to be an extraordinarily successful sales tool. "Before the Colonel," noted Thomas, "there was never an image in the food industry. I think the Colonel really provided that. He was really a personality." Indeed, Sanders appeared in commercials for the company as late as 1979, the year before his death. So effective was his distinctive image that a 1994 advertising campaign used a look-alike actor to impersonate him in a series of new, folksy television spots.
Sanders relied on several other brilliant marketing strategies. By calling his product "Kentucky Fried Chicken" instead of merely "fried chicken," he made it seem special. Furthermore, he added mystery and interest by calling attention to the "11 secret herbs and spices" in his coating recipe. "He came up with a special flavor that was addictive," observed John Y. Brown. "He was the first trendsetter to have a real differentiation in taste in the field."
Sanders liked to remain personally involved in sales and promotion. Whenever a new franchise opened, he wanted to be there to hand out coupons and speak on local radio and television. Thomas recalled, "The Colonel was right out there with us in rain or snow. There wasn't anything in the restaurant he wouldn't do." Franchise owners appreciated Sanders' loyalty and interest and repaid him by working hard and making the business grow.
Quality was always an issue with Sanders. Employees remember him bursting into kitchens to check up on them and show them how to do things properly. Harman Management chairman Jackie Trujillo, who first met Sanders when she worked as a carhop at a Harman's in Salt Lake City, said, "He used to visit us often. Service, quality and cleanliness was No. 1. He never backed down from that." One of his favorite sayings was "if you've got time to lean, you've got time to clean."
In short, declared Brown, "Nobody can really touch the Colonel when it comes to creating a concept that was ahead of its time." Sanders was a true pioneer in a business who tapped into Americans' growing desire for mobility and easy living. The fast-food industry he helped create has now become a way of life, not only in the United States but in a substantial part of the rest of the world as well.
Sources of Information
Contact at: Kentucky Fried Chicken
1441 Gardiner Ln.
Louisville, KY 40213
Business Phone: (502)874-8300
Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981.
Contemporary Authors. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985.
Gill, Brendan. "Better Late Than Never." Sales and Marketing Management, September 1996.
Kaelble, Steve. "It Could Have Been Indiana Fried Chicken." Indiana Business Magazine, November 1996.
Kramer, Louise. "Col. Harland Sanders." Nation's Restaurant News, February 1996.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1973. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1973.
Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1981. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1981.
Ruditsky, Howard. "Leaner Cuisine." Forbes, 27 March 1995.
Whitworth, William. Interview. New Yorker, 14 February 1970.
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