Sanders, Harland David ("Colonel")

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SANDERS, Harland David ("Colonel")

(b. 9 September 1890 in Henryville, Indiana; d. 16 December 1980 in Louisville, Kentucky), Midwestern farm boy and grade school dropout whose special recipe fried chicken business grew into the largest fast-food franchise in the United States by the mid-1960s.

Sanders was born to Margaret Ann Dunlevy and her farmer-turned-butcher husband, Wilbert Sanders. Wilbert Sanders died in 1895, leaving behind his widow and three small children, when Harland, the eldest, was five years old. His mother taught him both how to care for his younger siblings and how to cook because she had to work long hours at a local tomato cannery. She later remarried and moved to Greenwood, Indiana, with her new husband, William Broaddus. Twelve-year-old Sanders was often at odds with his stepfather, and at his mother's urging he left home to preserve the peace.

Sanders's childhood thus ended abruptly, and he dropped out of school and worked as a farmhand and later as a conductor on the New Albany streetcar line before joining the U.S. Army in November 1906 on a four-month tour of duty. Sanders took correspondence courses for a law degree from Southern University. This was followed by a series of jobs with the railroad before he set up a law practice, sold insurance and tires, and managed a gas station for Standard Oil. When fallout from the Great Depression forced him to close the doors of the station in 1929, he found a Shell Oil station to manage in Corbin, Kentucky, at the junction of U.S. Routes 25 and 25E. He opened a tiny, one-table diner in the back room of the station, eventually expanding his business across the street, where he built a seventeen-room motel complex in 1937. During these early years he met and married Josephine King in 1908. The couple had three children, but divorced in 1947. Sanders married his second wife, Claudia Ledington, a former employee, in 1949.

The motel and restaurant business at Corbin generated a healthy income for Sanders and became the first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, but a Route 25 bypass outside of Corbin in 1955 prompted Sanders to liquidate the operation. Already sixty-five years old and reduced to an income of $105 per month from Social Security, Sanders banked his future on the franchising of his famous fried chicken. He purchased a home in Shelbyville, near Louisville, Kentucky, where he set up a makeshift headquarters and peddled his product under the brand name Colonel Sanders Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1952 Sanders had established a franchise with restaurateur Pete Harman in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Harman expanded the franchise into Utah and Montana while Sanders focused on selling franchises in Indiana and Illinois.

Along with a precise method of pressure-cooking the chicken and a secret combination of eleven herbs and spices, Sanders lent a unique persona to the new venture. As a member of the Honorary Order of Kentucky Colonels, he cultivated an image as the quintessential gentleman of the antebellum South. He accordingly accessorized his wardrobe of white linen suits, adding black string ties and dapper walking sticks, and let his silvery gray hair, goatee, and mustache whiten naturally to enhance his kindly, photogenic face. Sanders assumed this new identity with serendipity, evolving gracefully into the grandfatherly colonel. He traveled the country in a white Cadillac, with his pressure cooker and precious seasonings on board, stopping at selected restaurants where he prepared samples of Kentucky Fried Chicken and generous bowls of succulent gravy. He offered restaurant owners the rights to serve the special recipe chicken for a franchise fee of five cents per chicken. Claudia Sanders prepared and shipped packages of the special ingredients to franchises and sometimes accompanied her husband to demonstrations, where she mingled with customers dressed in a hoop skirt, while the colonel, outfitted in white coattails with vest and gold watch chain, complemented her appearance. Within three years Sanders had established dozens of outlets throughout the Midwest, making personal appearances and passing out free chicken at franchise openings. Amid the success he initiated his first fast-food take-out service in Jacksonville, Florida, as a wedding present for his daughter. He established a spin-off company, Colonel's Foods, to distribute special recipe products.

By 1960 Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) encompassed approximately 200 franchises across North America, with pretax profits of $100,000. At five cents per chicken, over 2 million chickens were fried annually. Sanders upgraded from his classic white Cadillac to a gold Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud. The company grew to 600 franchises by 1963; profits tripled proportionally to $300,000. KFC by then was the largest fast-food franchise in the United States. Sanders prepared to deal with John Y. Brown, Jr., to serve KFC chicken through Brown's barbecue outlets; Brown instead made a bid for KFC in its entirety.

In 1964 Sanders agreed to transfer ownership to Brown and a partner, Jack Massey, for $2 million and exclusive rights to the company's Canadian operation. The deal guaranteed Sanders a lifetime annual salary of $40,000 plus commercial residuals to continue as goodwill ambassador. Although hotheaded in private and prone to pepper his speech with profanity, Sanders was a charismatic spokesman, and the company contracted a series of television commercials featuring Colonel Sanders touting "Finger Lickin' Good" chicken. Brown recalled, "[Sanders] wasn't just a trademark … that an adman had made up. He was real, … colorful, … a great actor … [who] made things look easy." With his easy Southern charm, Sanders in fact earned guest appearances on more than thirty national television shows, including such popular talk shows as Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin, during a three-year period in the mid-1960s, as well as a cameo appearance in the Jerry Lewis feature film The Big Mouth in 1967, all of which contributed to make KFC the fastest growing company in the United States.

By 1967 the carry-out business had grown to comprise 30 percent of KFC business. Soon afterward the freestanding, red-and-white-striped KFC carry-out stores dotted the landscape in the United States, and fast-food franchise restaurants symbolized the freewheeling American culture during the final quarter of the twentieth century. When Brown and Massey sold KFC to Heublein, Inc., in 1972, the franchise had increased in value to $273 million.

Sanders died at age ninety after a bout of pneumonia, and is buried in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery.

Sanders's autobiography is Life as I Have Known It Has Been "Finger Lickin' Good" (1974). Edward G. Klemm, Jr., discusses Sanders in Claudia, the Story of Colonel Harland Sanders Wife (1980), and John Ed Pearce documents the colonel's life in The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast-Food Empire (1982). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Louisville Courier-Journal (both 17 Dec. 1980).

Gloria Cooksey

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Sanders, Harland David ("Colonel")

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