Harland Sanders was definitely a real person, and a real character at that. He was born in 1890 in Indiana. He learned to cook for his younger siblings when he was six, after his father died and his mother went to work in a tomato cannery. He recalled, “We didn’t have any babysitter, but we got along fine. We knowed enough not to burn the house down.” In 1902, his mother remarried. Harland had a tumultuous relationship with his stepfather. The next year, at the age of 14, Harland left home to work as a farmhand.
After a few years of working on farms and later streetcars, he lied about his age so he could join the Army. The Army, however, was not where he earned the title of colonel. A Kentucky colonel is a title of honor conferred by the state, and the governor awarded it first in 1935 and again in 1949 after Sanders misplaced the certificate. After his “re-commissioning,” Sanders began to don his iconic white suit and string tie, believing the white helped to hide flour stains.
Over the course of his career, Sanders practiced law, sold insurance, tires, and lamps, ran a ferry boat company, and even delivered babies. He made several bad business gambles and had a hot temper. Because he rarely backed away from a fight (sometimes physical, as in the case of a courtroom brawl), he was often fired from his job. But his fighting spirit may have helped sparked the creation of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
During the Great Depression, Sanders ran a Shell gas station in a part of Corbin, Kentucky known as the “Hell’s Half-Acre” neighborhood. He wheeled out an old dining table and began to serve meals to truck drivers passing by. His ham and steak dinners grew popular enough that he opened Sanders Café across the street.
He painted a large sign pointing drivers on the highway to his station, but Matt Stewart, a competing Standard Oil operator, painted over it. Sanders threatened to “blow [his] goddamn head off” and fixed the sign.
Upon hearing that Stewart was painting over the sign a second time, Sanders and two Shell employees rushed to the scene with guns. Stewart shot and killed one of the Shell managers, and Sanders shot Stewart in the shoulder. Stewart was sent to prison for 18 years for murder, and though Sanders was arrested, charges were dropped. With Stewart in jail, Sanders had complete control of the gas station market in the area.
At first, fried chicken was not served at the restaurant because it took 30 minutes to prepare. Sanders began to experiment with a pressure cooker that cooked the chicken faster than pan frying. He also perfected the recipe that would come to be known as his “11 herbs and spices.” In 1939, food critic Duncan Hines included Sanders Café in Adventures in Good Eating, his guide to restaurants across the country.
Though business boomed for a while, several factors made ongoing success difficult. World War II rationing of gasoline meant tourism dried up, and by 1955, a new highway bypassed his restaurant. With the help of his mistress (and later his second wife) Claudia, he decided to franchise his chicken frying method and recipe. Sanders’s friend Pete Harman was the first franchisee, serving the Colonel’s chicken in Salt Lake City, Utah beginning in 1952. It was Harman who called it “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” and pioneered its now-famous bucket.
Sanders was in his 60s at the time and relied on a meager Social Security check. According to biographer Josh Ozersky, “He drove around in a Cadillac with his face painted on the side before anybody knew who he was, pleading with the owners of run-down diners to use his recipe and give him a nickel commission on each chicken. He slept in the back of the car and made handshake deals.”
By 1964, with over 600 franchised outlets, Sanders sold his interest in the company for $2 million and an ongoing salary to remain the face of the brand. He was 75. In 1966, the company went public, and shareholders raked in millions. Sanders began to feel as though he’d gotten a raw deal. At the company’s first convention after the IPO, he railed against management for 40 minutes and claimed executives were ruining his reputation. He didn’t win over many franchisees, however, and continued on as company spokesperson, though he remained ornery and even later tried to sue KFC. The case was settled out of court for $1 million and on the condition that he would stop criticizing the company and its food. He didn’t. In 1970, he told the New Yorker that the new gravy recipe “ain’t fit for my dogs.”
Colonel Harland Sanders died in 1980 of leukemia, and left much of his fortune to charity. “I never had any desire to be the richest man in the cemetery,” he said. After his death, his image has morphed into a marketing caricature, often to the chagrin of those who remember him.
"Everything You Probably Didn’t Know About Colonel Sanders" originally published on The Menuism Dining Blog.