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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.
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Before KFC came along, fast food was synonymous with hamburgers and fries, and chicken was traditionally home-cooked or eaten at family-style restaurants. Fried chicken, in particular, wasn’t thought of as “fast food” because it wasn’t fast: Making pan-fried chicken is a slow and careful process, and even deep-fried chicken can take upwards of 15 minutes to prepare.
The pressure cooker was released commercially in 1939, and almost immediately Sanders modified it into an early pressure fryer. Despite the danger of explosion (it was a few years before the design was perfected), Sanders began to use it exclusively, because, in his opinion, the resulting flavor closely resembled that achieved by using a frying pan.
Sanders knew that he had something special on his hands, and for many years his Sanders Court and Café was a local institution. But he understood that the construction of a highway nearby would deal his business a major blow as the flow of travelers was rerouted, so he sold it all and took his show on the road. For the next several years, Sanders traveled around the country selling small-town restaurant owners the rights to use his recipe in return for a four cent fee on every chicken sold. This franchise model was revolutionary for the time, and by allowing franchise owners to use his name and likeness, it also increased Sanders’ personal cachet immeasurably.
While passing through Salt Lake City in 1952, Sanders met a man by the name of Pete Harman who owned a successful burger joint called the Do Drop Inn. Sanders persuaded Harman to become his first franchisee, and soon after, Sanders’ chicken was being sold at the restaurant. Over the next few years, Harman and Sanders worked together to develop the franchise system that would bring the chain so much success (complete with training manuals, product guides, etc.), and Harman also contributed a couple legendary ideas: the development of the bucket meal in 1957, and the motto “It’s finger-lickin’ good.” Harman went on to operate more than 200 KFC locations in four states.
Harman decided to change the name of his restaurant to highlight his new standout dish, but was unsure of what to call it right until the sign painter arrived. Luckily, that painter, Don Anderson, had an idea for a name that would invoke something “exotic” as well as Southern hospitality: Kentucky Fried Chicken.
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The blend of 11 herbs and spices that went into Sanders’ original fried chicken recipe is still in use today, and its components remain a mystery, even though many have tried to decipher it (some claim to have reverse-engineered the recipe, while writer William Poundstone famously asserted that it’s only flour, salt, pepper, and MSG). A Sanders-signed copy of the recipe is inside a vault in KFC’s Louisville headquarters, and even the manufacturers don’t know what goes into it: Half of the mix is made by Griffith Laboratories, and then it’s sent to McCormick, where the rest is added.
When KFC opened its first Chinese outlet in Beijing in 1987, it was the first incursion of Western fast food into the Communist nation. Today, it’s China’s largest fast food chain, with more than 4,500 outlets in the country.
Chicken livers and gizzards are available on the KFC menu in some regions of the United States, and some locations even offer an all-you-can-eat buffet. Different frying oils are used in different regions, including sunflower, soybean, canola, and palm oil, which can subtly alter the flavor of the finished product. Whether the chicken is corn-fed or wheat-fed also affects the flavor.
Depending on where you are in the world, the menu at the local KFC can vary drastically from other countries. For example, in Japan, Jamaica, and other island countries, fried seafood is sold as “Colonel’s Catch”; onion rings are sold in many countries; congee and tree fungus salad are on the menu in China; you can buy spaghetti at Indonesian locations; and a chickpea burger can be found in India.
Even though a very small percentage of Japan is Christian, they’ve adopted Christmas as, basically, the holiday when you eat KFC. Seriously: In Japan, KFC and Christmas are synonymous, and the chain’s Christmas dinner, which includes cake and Champagne, sells for about $40. The chain records its highest volume of sales in Japan on Christmas Eve, and Japan Airlines even serves KFC on select flights during the Christmas season. This correlation is the result of a smart marketing campaign that started in 1974 and continues to this day.
An intrepid data scientist recently uncovered the fact that in the U.K., there are 13 Tennessee Fried Chickens, six Kansases, four Californias, two Floridas, and one each of Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Harlan Sanders’ nephew, Joe Ledington, found a recipe for fried chicken in a scrapbook belonging to his mother (Sanders’ second wife), and when The Chicago Tribune put the recipe to the test, they found that the resulting fried chicken was “indistinguishable” from a batch bought at KFC. Conveniently, that recipe indeed included 11 herbs and spices: salt, black pepper, white pepper, thyme, basil, oregano, celery salt, dried mustard, paprika, garlic salt, and ground ginger.
A couple years ago, the very first (and only) all-you-can-eat KFC buffet opened in Osaka, Japan; customers pay $16-21 and have 90 minutes to eat all they want. Vice recently dropped by and discovered that along with the usual offerings, there’s also eight different ice cream flavors, croissants, lasagna, spaghetti, and some other surprises.