A pathway in Louisville’s historic Cave Hill Cemetery leads straight to the man who changed the world of fried chicken forever. Below the bust designed by his daughter is Harland Sanders, more affectionately known to billions across the globe (especially Japan) as “Colonel Sanders." His contribution to the world is simply stated on his grave: the “Founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken Empire.”
Over the last year, fervor has erupted over Colonel Sanders’ television re-emergence and the actors casted to play the company’s iconic founder. Lost in the hubbub, though, was that Colonel Sanders was real and built KFC with his own two greasy hands. Sanders sold the company in 1964, but for years afterwards, he would regret it. In fact, Sanders would visit KFCs across the country criticizing the low quality of the food, saying the gravy was horrible and that the extra crispy recipe was nothing more than “a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.”
Here’s the story of how Harland Sanders created one of the most famous food brands in American history.
Born in 1890 in rural Indiana, Sanders’ father died when he was young, leaving his mother working several jobs to provide for him and his two siblings. Little Harland became the cook of the house - later in life, he loved telling the story about the first time he baked bread. He entered the workforce at ten, moving from job to job trying to make enough money to help his family. For the next three decades, Sanders career was varied; He was a ferryboat operator, a fireman, did a three month Army stint in Cuba and there was that time he shot a man who was messing with his billboard.
In 1930, Shell Oil Company gave Sanders the chance to his own gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. In exchange for the meager earnings, the company allowed Sanders and his family to live in the back. And every Sunday night, Sanders would cook his family a delicious meal - country ham, steak and fried chicken. With travelers asking him for dining recommendations, Sanders realized the potential for extra earnings if he served hungry travelers his family’s dinner. Sanders’ “Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week,” especially his chicken, was a tremendous success, and his operation even showed up in Duncan Hines’ ”Adventures in Good Eating.” Soon, Sanders’ food became so well-known that Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffon gave Sanders the famed (but honorary) title of Colonel “in recognition of his contributions to the state’s cuisine.” From that point forward, he was forever Colonel Sanders.
All of the extra demand left Colonel Sanders pining for a better way to make his chicken. While pan-frying delivered tasty chicken, it took a half hour to make. The other methods - baking, french-frying, etc. - left his chicken ill-prepared. In 1939, Sanders discovered the tool that would change fried chicken forever, the pressure cooker. Retaining all the moisture and only needing a few minutes, the pressure cooker allowed Colonel Sanders to further expand his business.
In the early 1950s, the new Interstate 75 arrived in Kentucky (part of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System), bypassing Sanders’ restaurant. While Sanders knew the new highway would likely doom his tiny eatery, he had faith in the chicken business. Now in his mid-60s, Sanders packed up his life and drove around the country selling his “11 secret herbs and spices” recipe to individual restaurants, asking for a nickel from each sale. In 1952, Peter Harmon - owner of Do Drop Inn in Salt Lake City - became the first to make such an agreement. Business boomed. By 1959, Sanders had made nearly 200 such deals in the United States and Canada. Sanders sold his “Kentucky Fried Chicken” company in 1964 for two million dollars.
Until his death in 1980, Sanders, always wearing his white suit and black string bowtie, worked as a spokesperson for the company he founded. But he wasn't pleased with the taste of his famous chicken and gravy. In interviews, including in a 1970 New Yorker article, he was so upset by the quality of the food that he would tell reporters that the gravy “ain’t fit for my dogs.” In fact, he was so open about his disdain for the alterations made to his signature recipes that KFC sued him for libel in 1978. The suit was eventually thrown out.
There's little doubt that if Colonel Sanders walked into a KFC today, he would be pretty upset. But at least he'll always be remembered as the "Carl Sagan of Chicken."