Whether you call it KFC or Kentucky Fried Chicken, the restaurant that made founder Colonel Sanders a household name is one of the world’s biggest and most successful fast food chains. But even if no Sunday dinner is complete without a bucket of that “finger-lickin’ good” chicken, we bet there’s a lot you didn’t know about this international chain.
The story of KFC begins, of course, with Harland Sanders, and his is truly a rags-to-riches story. After a rocky childhood in Henryville, Indiana, near the Kentucky border, he left home at age 13 and worked lots of jobs, with mixed success, before taking over a Shell filling station in small-town Kentucky in 1930, at the age of 40. His cooking (which he served to travelers at his own dining room table) was such a success that he expanded to a larger location across the street. By 1937 his operation had expanded to 142 seats and a motel, which he named Sanders Court & Café.
Sanders became a bit of a local celebrity when the governor bestowed upon him the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel — Sanders took the honor very seriously, and even dressed the part. After a newly constructed highway hurt his business, Sanders sold all his properties and began selling his fried chicken recipe to restaurants, allowing them to use his name and likeness for promotion. The name Kentucky Fried Chicken was soon adopted by all the restaurants that sold the product, and by 1963 they had turned into the largest fast food chain in the country.
In 1964, the 74-year-old Sanders sold his company to a group of investors for $2 million, guaranteeing himself a lifetime salary and the opportunity to stay on board as quality controller and to appear in commercials for the company, which made him a full-fledged celebrity. The company was sold again in 1971 to Heublein (a packaged food and drink company), and by the time Sanders died in 1980 there were about 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries. In 1982, KFC was sold to tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds; in 1986, it was sold to PepsiCo; and in 1997, PepsiCo spun off its restaurant division (which also included holdings Pizza Hut and Taco Bell) into a public company called Tricon, which was renamed Yum! Brands in 2002.
While KFC is still a major international brand (with nearly 20,000 locations worldwide and $23 billion in revenue in 2013), the company has seen better days. Its dominance in the chicken world has been threatened by chains like Chick-Fil-A, which has surpassed it as the leading chicken retailer, and it’s bringing in less money than chains half its size, like Panera Bread. The company is currently completing a $175 million makeover, complete with throwback-style commercials starring a string of comedians and actors including Darrell Hammond, Norm MacDonald, Jim Gaffigan, and Rob Lowe as an eccentric Colonel Sanders; and stores are being remodeled with touches like blackboards indicating what farm the chicken comes from and lots of photos of the Colonel himself. They've also rolled out some succesful new menu items, like Nashville hot chicken.
Whatever the future holds for KFC, it’s clear that the Colonel’s creation isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Click here for 15 things you didn't know about it.