Colonel Harland David Sanders[a] (September 9, 1890 – December 16, 1980) was an American businessman, best known for founding fast food chicken restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (now known as KFC) and later acting as the company's brand ambassador and symbol. His name and image are still symbols of the company.
Sanders held a number of jobs in his early life, such as steam engine stoker, insurance salesman and filling station operator. He began selling fried chicken from his roadside restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky, during the Great Depression. Sanders recognized the potential of the restaurant franchising concept, and the first KFC franchise opened in Utah in 1952. The company's rapid expansion across the United States and overseas was overwhelming for Sanders and in 1964 he sold the company to a group of investors led by John Y. Brown, Jr. and Jack C. Massey for $2 million ($15.4 million today).
Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, in a four-room house located 3 miles (5 km) east of Henryville, Indiana. He was the oldest of three children born to Wilbur David and Margaret Ann (née Dunlevy) Sanders. The family attended the Advent Christian Church. The family were of mostly Irish and English ancestry. His father was a mild and affectionate man who worked his 80-acre farm, until he broke his leg after a fall. He then worked as a butcher in Henryville for two years. Sanders' mother was a devout Christian and strict parent, continuously warning her children of "the evils of alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and whistling on Sundays."
One summer afternoon in 1895, his father came home with a fever and died later that day. Sanders' mother obtained work in a tomato cannery, and the young Harland was required to look after and cook for his siblings. By the age of seven, he was reportedly skilled with bread and vegetables, and improving with meat; the children foraged for food while their mother was away for days at a time for work. When he was 10, Sanders began to work as a farmhand for local farmers Charlie Norris and Henry Monk.
In 1902, Sanders' mother remarried to William Broaddus, and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana. Sanders had a tumultuous relationship with his stepfather. In 1903, he dropped out of seventh grade (later stating that "algebra's what drove me off"), and went to live and work on a nearby farm. At age 13, he left home by himself. He then took a job painting horse carriages in Indianapolis. When he was 14, he moved to southern Indiana to work as a farmhand for Sam Wilson for two years.
Sanders falsified his date of birth and enlisted in the United States Army in October 1906, completing his service commitment as a teamster in Cuba. He was honorably discharged in February 1907 and moved to Sheffield, Alabama, where an uncle lived. There, he met his brother Clarence who had also moved there in order to escape their stepfather. The uncle worked for the Southern Railway, and secured Sanders a job there as a blacksmith's helper in the workshops. After two months, Sanders moved to Jasper, Alabama where he got a job cleaning out the ash pans of trains from the Northern Alabama Railroad (a division of the Southern Railway) when they had finished their run. Sanders progressed to become a fireman (steam engine stoker) at the age of 16 or 17.
In 1909, Sanders found laboring work with the Norfolk and Western Railway. While working on the railroad, he met Josephine King of Jasper, Alabama, and they were married shortly afterwards. They would go on to have a son, Harland, Jr., who died in 1932 from infected tonsils, and two daughters, Margaret Sanders and Mildred Sanders Ruggles. He then found work as a fireman on the Illinois Central Railroad, and he and his family moved to Jackson, Tennessee. By night, Sanders studied law by correspondence through the La Salle Extension University. Sanders lost his job at Illinois after brawling with a colleague. While Sanders moved to work for the Rock Island Railroad, Josephine and the children went to live with her parents. After a while, Sanders began to practice law in Little Rock, which he did for three years, earning enough in fees for his family to move with him. His legal career ended after a courtroom brawl with his own client.
After that, Sanders moved back with his mother in Henryville, and went to work as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. In 1916, the family moved to Jeffersonville, where Sanders got a job selling life insurance for the Prudential Life Insurance Company. Sanders was eventually fired for insubordination. He moved to Louisville and got a sales job with Mutual Benefit Life of New Jersey.
In 1920, Sanders established a ferry boat company, which operated a boat on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville. He canvassed for funding, becoming a minority shareholder himself, and was appointed secretary of the company. The ferry was an instant success. Around 1922 he took a job as secretary at the Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Indiana. He admitted to not being very good at the job, and resigned after less than a year. Sanders cashed in his ferry boat company shares for $22,000 ($309,000 today) and used the money to establish a company manufacturing acetylene lamps. The venture failed after Delco introduced an electric lamp that they sold on credit.
Sanders moved to Winchester, Kentucky, to work as a salesman for the Michelin Tire Company. He lost his job in 1924 when Michelin closed their New Jersey manufacturing plant. In 1924, by chance, he met the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky, who asked him to run a service station in Nicholasville. In 1930, the station closed as a result of the Great Depression.
In 1930, the Shell Oil Company offered Sanders a service station in North Corbin, Kentucky, rent free, in return for paying them a percentage of sales. Sanders began to serve chicken dishes and other meals such as country ham and steaks. Initially he served the customers in his adjacent living quarters before opening a restaurant. It was during this period that Sanders was involved in a shootout with a Matt Stewart, a local competitor, over the repainting of a sign directing traffic to his station. Stewart killed a Shell official who was with Sanders and was convicted of murder, eliminating Sanders' competition. Sanders was commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel in 1935 by Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon. His local popularity grew, and, in 1939, food critic Duncan Hines visited Sanders's restaurant and included it in Adventures in Good Eating, his guide to restaurants throughout the US. The entry read:
Corbin, KY. Sanders Court and Café
41 — Jct. with 25, 25 E. ½ Mi. N. of Corbin. Open all year except Xmas.
A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits. L. 50¢ to $1; D., 60¢ to $1
In July 1939, Sanders acquired a motel in Asheville, North Carolina. His North Corbin restaurant and motel was destroyed in a fire in November 1939, and Sanders had it rebuilt as a motel with a 140-seat restaurant. By July 1940, Sanders had finalized his "Secret Recipe" for frying chicken in a pressure fryer that cooked the chicken faster than pan frying. As the United States entered World War II in December 1941, gas was rationed, and as the tourists dried up, Sanders was forced to close his Asheville motel. He went to work as a supervisor in Seattle until the latter part of 1942. He later ran cafeterias for the government at an ordnance works in Tennessee, followed by a job as assistant cafeteria manager in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
He left his mistress, Claudia Ledington-Price, as manager of the North Corbin restaurant and motel. In 1942, he sold the Asheville business. In 1947, he and Josephine divorced and Sanders married Claudia in 1949, as he had long desired. Sanders was "re-commissioned" as a Kentucky Colonel in 1950 by his friend, Governor Lawrence Wetherby.
Kentucky Fried Chicken
In 1952, Sanders franchised his secret recipe "Kentucky Fried Chicken" for the first time, to Pete Harman of South Salt Lake, Utah, the operator of one of that city's largest restaurants. In the first year of selling the product, restaurant sales more than tripled, with 75% of the increase coming from sales of fried chicken. For Harman, the addition of fried chicken was a way of differentiating his restaurant from competitors; in Utah, a product hailing from Kentucky was unique and evoked imagery of Southern hospitality. Don Anderson, a sign painter hired by Harman, coined the name Kentucky Fried Chicken. After Harman's success, several other restaurant owners franchised the concept and paid Sanders $0.04 per chicken.
Sanders believed that his North Corbin restaurant would remain successful indefinitely, but at age 65 sold it after the new Interstate 75 reduced customer traffic. Left only with his savings and $105 a month from Social Security, Sanders decided to begin to franchise his chicken concept in earnest, and traveled the US looking for suitable restaurants. After closing the North Corbin site, Sanders and Claudia opened a new restaurant and company headquarters in Shelbyville in 1959. Often sleeping in the back of his car, Sanders visited restaurants, offered to cook his chicken, and if workers liked it negotiated franchise rights.
Although such visits required much time, eventually potential franchisees began visiting Sanders instead. He ran the company while Claudia mixed and shipped the spices to restaurants. The franchise approach became highly successful; KFC was one of the first fast food chains to expand internationally, opening outlets in Canada and later in England, Mexico and Jamaica by the mid-1960s. Sanders obtained a patent protecting his method of pressure frying chicken in 1962. Sanders trademarked the phrase "It's Finger Lickin' Good" in 1963.
The company's rapid expansion to more than 600 locations became overwhelming for the aging Sanders. In 1964, then 73 years old, he sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation for $2 million ($15.4 million today) to a partnership of Kentucky businessmen headed by John Y. Brown, Jr. (a then-29-year-old lawyer and future governor of Kentucky) and Jack C. Massey (a venture capitalist and entrepreneur), and he became a salaried brand ambassador. The initial deal did not include the Canadian operations (which Sanders retained) or the franchising rights in England, Florida, Utah, and Montana (which Sanders had already sold to others).
In 1965, Sanders moved to Mississauga, Ontario to oversee his Canadian franchises and continued to collect franchise and appearance fees both in Canada and in the U.S. Sanders bought and lived in a bungalow at 1337 Melton Drive in the Lakeview area of Mississauga from 1965 to 1980. In September 1970 he and his wife were baptized in the Jordan River. He also befriended Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.
Sanders remained the company's symbol after selling it, traveling 200,000 miles a year on the company's behalf and filming many TV commercials and appearances. He retained much influence over executives and franchisees, who respected his culinary expertise and feared what The New Yorker described as "the force and variety of his swearing" when a restaurant or the company varied from what executives described as "the Colonel's chicken". One change the company made was to the gravy, which Sanders had bragged was so good that "it'll make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy" but which the company simplified to reduce time and cost. As late as 1979 Sanders made surprise visits to KFC restaurants, and if the food disappointed him, he denounced it to the franchisee as "God-damned slop" or pushed it onto the floor. In 1973, Sanders sued Heublein Inc.—the then parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken—over the alleged misuse of his image in promoting products he had not helped develop. In 1975, Heublein Inc. unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publicly described their gravy as being "sludge" with a "wall-paper taste".
Sanders and his wife reopened their Shelbyville restaurant as "Claudia Sanders, The Colonel's Lady" and served KFC-style chicken there as part of a full-service dinner menu, and talked about expanding the restaurant into a chain. He was sued by the company for it. After reaching a settlement with Heublein, he sold the Colonel's Lady restaurant, and it has continued to operate since then (currently as the "Claudia Sanders Dinner House"). It serves his "original recipe" fried chicken as part of its (non-fast-food) dinner menu, and it is the only non-KFC restaurant that serves an authorized version of the fried chicken recipe.
Sanders remained critical of Kentucky Fried Chicken's food. In the late 1970s he told the Louisville Courier-Journal:
My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I've seen my mother make it. ... There's no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it. ... crispy recipe is nothing in the world but a damn fried doughball stuck on some chicken.
Sanders later used his stock holdings to create the Colonel Harland Sanders Trust and Colonel Harland Sanders Charitable Organization, which used the proceeds to aid charities and fund scholarships. His trusts continue to donate money to groups like the Trillium Health Care Centre; a wing of their building specializes in women's and children's care and has been named after him. The Sidney, British Columbia based foundation granted over $1,000,000 in 2007, according to its 2007 tax return.
After being recommissioned as a Kentucky colonel in 1950 by Governor Lawrence Wetherby, Sanders began to dress the part, growing a goatee and wearing a black frock coat (later switching to a white suit), a string tie, and referring to himself as "Colonel." His associates went along with the title change, "jokingly at first and then in earnest," according to biographer Josh Ozersky.
He never wore anything else in public during the last 20 years of his life, using a heavy wool suit in the winter and a light cotton suit in the summer. He bleached his mustache and goatee to match his white hair.
Sanders was diagnosed with acute leukemia in June 1980. He died at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky of pneumonia on December 16, 1980 at the age of 90. Sanders had remained active until the month before his death, appearing in his white suit to crowds. His body lay in state in the rotunda of the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort after a funeral service at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Chapel, which was attended by more than 1,000 people. Sanders was buried in his characteristic white suit and black western string tie in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.
By the time of Sanders' death, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide, with $2 billion ($5.8 billion today) of sales annually.
As a symbol of the KFC brand
A fictionalized Colonel Sanders has repeatedly appeared as a mascot in KFC's advertising and branding. Sanders has been voiced by impressionists in radio ads, and from 1998 to 2001 an animated version of him voiced by Randy Quaid appeared in television commercials. In May 2015, KFC reprised the Colonel Sanders character in new television advertisements, played by comedian Darrell Hammond. Some commentators felt the new portrayal was distasteful and disrespectful of the actual man's legacy. In August 2015, KFC launched a new campaign, this time with comedian Norm Macdonald portraying Sanders; the first ad of the campaign makes direct reference to the Hammond campaign, with a brief piece of footage of Hammond followed by Macdonald's Colonel declaring his predecessor an impostor. In February 2016, yet another portrayal was introduced with Jim Gaffigan as the Colonel, shown bolting awake in bed and telling his wife about his recurring nightmare of Macdonald's Colonel "pretending to be me". By July 2016, George Hamilton was playing Colonel Sanders, parlaying his famous tan into an advertisement for KFC's "extra crispy" chicken. During the airing of the 2016 SummerSlam, a commercial aired of WWE wrestler Dolph Ziggler dressed up as Colonel Sanders beating up a man in a chicken suit (played by fellow wrestler and fellow Cleveland native The Miz) in a wrestling ring. In September 2016 comedian Rob Riggle played Sanders in an ad introducing a football team named "The Kentucky Buckets."
The Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball league has developed an urban legend of the "Curse of the Colonel". A statue of Colonel Sanders was thrown into a river and lost during a 1985 fan celebration, and (according to the legend) the "curse" has caused Japan's Hanshin Tigers to perform poorly since the incident.
Characters based on Colonel Sanders have appeared in popular fiction. Within the DC Comics multiverse, alternate versions of the Colonel appear in KFC: The Colonel Corps. In the novel Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Colonel Sanders appears when an "abstract concept" takes on the appearance of "a famous capitalist icon."
One of Colonel Sanders' white suits and black clip-on bow-ties were sold at auction for $21,510 by Heritage Auctions on June 22, 2013. The suit had been given to Cincinnati resident Mike Morris by Sanders, who was close to Morris's family. The Morris family house was purchased by Col. Sanders, and Sanders lived with the family for six months. The suit was purchased by Kentucky Fried Chicken of Japan president Maseo "Charlie" Watanabe. Watanabe put on the famous suit after placing the winning bid at the auction event in Dallas, Texas.
In 2011, a manuscript of a book on cooking that Sanders apparently wrote in the mid-1960s was found in KFC archives. It includes some cooking recipes from Sanders as well as anecdotes and life lessons. KFC said it was planning to try some of the recipes and to publish the 200-page manuscript online.
Notes and citations
- Klotter, The Human Tradition in the New South, p. 130.
- Sanders, Harland (1974). The Incredible Colonel. Illinois: Creation House. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-88419-053-0.
- "Colonels of Truth". www.damninteresting.com. Retrieved April 8, 2016.
- Whitworth, William (February 14, 1970). "Kentucky-Fried". The New Yorker. Retrieved April 18, 2015.
- Kleber, John E.; Clark, Thomas D.; Harrison, Lowell H.; Klotter, James C., eds. (January 13, 2015) . "Sanders, Harland David". The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 796–797. ISBN 0-8131-1772-0.
- Sanders, Harland (2012). The Autobiography of the Original Celebrity Chef (PDF). Louisville: KFC. ISBN 978-0-9855439-0-7. Archived from the original (PDF) on September 21, 2013. Retrieved October 1, 2013.
- Klotter, The Human Tradition in the New South, p. 131.
- Ozersky, Josh (2012). Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. University of Texas Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-292-74285-7.
- Edith Evans Asbury (December 17, 1980). "Col. Harland Sanders, Founder Of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dies; Cooked Meals as a Child Success Comes Slowly: [Obituary]". The New York Times. p. A33. 936479241. Retrieved February 26, 2015. (subscription required)
- Josh Kegley, Daughter of Colonel Sanders dies at age 91, Lexington Herald-Leader, September 25, 2010.
- Sanders, Harland (1974). The Incredible Colonel. Illinois: Creation House. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-88419-053-0.
- Ozersky, Josh (2012). Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. University of Texas Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-292-74285-7.
- Ozersky, Josh (2012). Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. University of Texas Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-292-74285-7.
- Klotter, The Human Tradition in the New South, p. 134.
- Sanders, Harland (1974). The Incredible Colonel. Illinois: Creation House. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-88419-053-0.
- Ozersky, Josh (2012). Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. University of Texas Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-292-74285-7.
- "About Us | KFC History". KFC.co.uk. Archived from the original on February 6, 2015. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Taylor, Kate (September 4, 2015). "7 Things You Didn't Know About The Real Colonel Sanders". MSN. p. 2. Retrieved September 4, 2015.
- Darden, Robert (January 1, 2004). Secret Recipe: Why Kfc Is Still Cooking After 50 Years. Tapestry Press. ISBN 978-1-930819-33-7. Retrieved April 10, 2013.
- Klotter, The Human Tradition in the New South, p. 142.
- "KFC - Colonel Sanders Cafe & Museum - America's First Kentucky Fried Chicken". Corbinkentucky.us. February 18, 1964. Archived from the original on October 22, 2004. Retrieved July 30, 2010.
- Nii, Jenifer K. (2004). "Colonel's landmark KFC is mashed". Deseret Morning News. Retrieved October 28, 2007.
- Lawrence, Jodi (November 9, 1969). "Chicken Big and the Citizen Senior". The Washington Post and Times-Herald. p. 305.
- Liddle, Alan (May 21, 1990). "Pete Harman". Nation's Restaurant News.
- Ozersky, Josh (September 15, 2010). "KFC's Colonel Sanders: He Was Real, Not Just an Icon". Time. Retrieved September 18, 2010.
- I've Got a Secret interview, originally broadcast April 6, 1964 (rebroadcast by GSN March 30, 2008).
- McGuire, Jenn (October 12, 2010). "Claudia Sanders Dinner House Serves Up the Real Thing". HelloLouisville. Archived from the original on December 31, 2013. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- "Process of producing fried chicken under pressure US 3245800 A". Retrieved November 9, 2016.
- "KFC Corporation History". Funding Universe. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- "KFC nixes Mississauga's Col. Sanders for new upmarket restaurant". NiagarathisWeek. July 17, 2013. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Klotter, The Human Tradition in the New South, p. 153.
- Downs, Jere (May 27, 2015). "KFC Col. Sanders' revival 'tarnishes' the icon". The Courier-Journal. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Ryan, Ed (October 7, 1974). "Colonel Sanders and His Lady: He Cooks, She Cleans the Pots". People. 2 (15). Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- United Press International (September 12, 1975). "Col. Sanders' Chicken War Ends". The New York Times. p. 46.
- "Claudia Sanders Dinner House - Shelbyville, Kentucky". kentuckytourism.com. Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- "Claudia Sanders Dinner House". claudiasanders.com. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Quoted in "Kentucky Fried Chicken of Bowling Green, Inc. v. Sanders". Kentucky Supreme Court. March 14, 1978. Retrieved March 20, 2016.
- "About Us: Tillium Health Center". Trilliumhealthcentre.org. Retrieved July 30, 2010.
- Miller, John Winn (December 16, 1980). "Flags at half-staff to honor Sanders". Associated Press.
Louisville, Ky. - Flags were flying at half-staff here today as Kentucky honored Col. Harland sanders, the smiling, white-suited gentleman whose "secret recipe" started an international fried chicken empire.
Sanders, founder of the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, died Tuesday at age 90.
The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, aggravated by leukemia, said KFC spokesman John Cox.
Sanders had been hospitalized Nov. 7 for treatment of an infection of the kidney and bladder. While undergoing treatment, he developed pneumonia for the third time this year and lapsed into critical condition.
During an earlier hospital stay, doctors found he also was suffering from leukemia, a blood disease.
- "Col. Sanders, fried chicken king, dead". Chicago Tribune. December 17, 1980. p. 5.
- "Milestones". Time. December 29, 1980. Retrieved May 19, 2008.
- "Col. Sanders, 90, Dies of Pneumonia". The Washington Post. December 17, 1980.
- Smith, J. Y. (December 17, 1980). "Col. Sanders, the Fried-Chicken Gentleman, Dies". Washington Post.
- Howard, Theresa (September 28, 1998). "KFC, with Pepsi, Mulls Putting New 'Colonel' On Proprietary Beverage". Brandweek. Highbeam Business. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- La Monica, Paul R. (May 19, 2015). "KFC is bringing back Colonel Sanders". CNNMoney. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Downs, Jere (May 27, 2015). "Some Colonel Sanders fans find new ads distastefull". USA Today. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Kulp, Patrick (May 29, 2015). "KFC likes that you hate the new Colonel Sanders because at least you're feeling something". Mashable. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Watrous, Monica (May 28, 2015). "The Revival of KFC". Food Business News. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- O'Reilly, Lara (August 17, 2015). "KFC has another new Colonel – and it'll be hoping some viewers hate these ads as much as the last". Business Insider. Archived from the original on December 26, 2015. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Johnson, Lauren (February 6, 2016). "KFC Swaps Out Norm Macdonald for Jim Gaffigan as Its Latest 'Real' Colonel". Adweek. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Moran, Victoria (June 23, 2016). "KFC Brings in an Extra-Bronzed George Hamilton to Play Extra Crispy Colonel". Advertising Age. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Griner, David (August 22, 2016). "Sanders Is Ripped and Ready to Rumble in WWE's Twist on KFC's Colonel Campaign". Adweek. Retrieved August 23, 2016.
- Miller, Kate (2016-09-08). "Watch Rob Riggle as KFC's newest Colonel Sanders". The Kansas City Star.
- White, Paul (August 21, 2003). "The Colonel's curse runs deep". USA Today. Retrieved May 28, 2009.
- Diaz, Eric (July 8, 2016). "KFC'S Col. Sanders Comes to the DC Multiverse. For Real.". Nerdist. Retrieved July 10, 2016.
- Miller, Laura (February 6, 2005). "Crossing Over". The New York Times. Retrieved July 10, 2016.
- Brown, Angela K, President of KFC Japan buys Colonel Sanders' trademark white suit at auction for $21K Associated Press 6/22/13
- "KFC's Col. Sanders' White Suit Fetches $21,510". ABC News. June 22, 2012. Archived from the original on June 27, 2013. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
- "KFC Founder Colonel Harland Sander's Secret Manuscript to Be Revealed". Fox News. Associated Press. November 10, 2011. Retrieved November 12, 2011.
- Peterson, Kim (November 11, 2011). "KFC discovers Colonel Sanders' secret book". MSN Money. Associated Press. Archived from the original on July 3, 2014. Retrieved December 23, 2016.
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