Though his karma is stained with the blood of generations of innocent poultry, Colonel Harland Sanders is an American legend. He may look like a beady-eyed, mint-julep-swilling racist, but as a late blooming entrepreneur his story is inspirational. His father died when he was 6. While his mother worked to support the family, Sanders taught himself to cook for his siblings.
He was married at age 18. His wife left him and took their baby daughter. Disconsolate and depressed, Sanders hatched a plan to kidnap his daughter. He hid in the forest outside the home of his in-laws in Jasper, Alabama. When his daughter did not come outside to play, he abandoned the plan and made peace with his wife. They stayed together for 39 years until he left her for his secretary.
He embarked on a series of short terms jobs including farmer, soldier, short order cook, streetcar conductor, blacksmith, painter, tire salesman and steamboat operator. He procured a law degree through correspondence courses from LaSalle University then opened a law practice in Little Rock, Arkansas. He got into a fistfight with a client causing him to end his legal career.
In 1930, he bought a small service station from Shell Oil in Corbin, Kentucky. It was the Depression and times were tough. He cooked chicken, ham and steak for hungry travelers. His specialty was a secret recipe for fried chicken with 11 herbs and spices prepared in a pressure cooker. On several occasions he almost killed himself when the pressure cookers exploded.
Sanders painted advertisements for his business on barns and walls around town. One of his competitors, Matt Stewart, painted over the signs. Sanders became furious. He visited Stewart with two Shell district managers. Stewart took out a shotgun and fired at Sanders, striking and killing one of the managers. Sanders fired back, shooting Stewart in the shoulder. Stewart was convicted of murder. Charges were dropped against Sanders.
In 1940, Sanders opened a motel in Asheville, North Carolina with an attached 140-seat restaurant. As America entered the war, gas rationing reduced auto traffic to a standstill. Sanders was forced to close his business.
He moved to Corbin, Kentucky and opened a new motel and restaurant called Sanders Court and Cafe. The spot became popular among travelers driving to Florida. When Interstate 75 was built in the 50's, it bypassed Corbin taking away Sanders customers. Once again he shut down his business.
He was 62 years old and had nothing but a $105-a-month Social Security check. He felt like a complete failure and decided to commit suicide. Instead of a suicide note, he wrote a list of the things he had hoped to achieve in life. At the top of his list was his chicken recipe. He believed it still had potential. With nothing to lose, he borrowed $87 from friends, started living out of his and sold fried chicken door to door. He began wearing his familiar white shirt, black tie, white jacket and pants.
While driving through Salt Lake City, Sanders stopped at one of the largest restaurants in town, the Doo Drop In. The owner was an old friend named Pete Harman. Sanders convinced Harman to sell his chicken recipe in the restaurant. The name Kentucky Fried Chicken was conceived by a local artist hired by Harman named Don Anderson. Anderson designed the original bucket illustration as well.
Sanders signed agreements with several restaurants for a franchise fee of four cents per chicken. By 1964, there were more than 600 Kentucky Fried Chicken sites in the US, Canada, Mexico and England. In 1970, Sanders sold his business to investors John Y. Brown and Jack Massey. Sanders was kept on as product ambassador and television spokesperson.
After the company was sold to Heublein Corporation, an alcohol distributor, Sanders publicly criticized the food. He called the gravy “god-damned slop” and the mashed potatoes “wallpaper paste to which sludge has been added.” Heublein paid Sanders $1 million to stop criticizing the food.
Sanders fame grew quickly as he appeared on TV shows and his “finger lickin’ good” commercials. He claimed his honorary title as colonel was given to him twice, once by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935, and again in 1950 by Governor Lawrence Wetherby. He cultivated an aura of the sweet old slave-holding grandpa you never had.
In his autobiography Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good, Sanders shares tidbits from his life. He said he dressed his secretary in frumpy clothes so his wife wouldn’t realize they were having an affair. He drove a Rolls Royce with a company logo painted on the door. He was baptized by Jerry Falwell in the River Jordan. He went on the PTL Club on television and told Pastor Jim Bakker that God helped Sanders pass a polyp via a bowel movement. He claimed to become a billionaire by age 87.
Colonel Sanders died in 1980 at the age of 90 after a prolonged illness. By the end of his life, KFC outlets were located in more than 100 countries. Not bad for a man who started at retirement age.