For every chicken prepared using his recipe, Harland “Colonel” Sanders got five cents. Not a bad idea. To convince cooks that his method really was the best on the market, he traveled through the US letting them test it for themselves. His first franchise contracts were handshake agreements. And they made him pretty rich, pretty quickly.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we? In 1930, at age 40, the entrepreneur started preparing chicken for customers at his gas station in Corbin. At first, he cooked everything next door, at his own apartment. As demand increased, though, he expanded his gas station into a motel and restaurant seating 142. He spent the next nine years refining his cooking technique and perfecting his blend of seasonings. The final recipe had eleven herbs and spices—and supposedly the company’s still using the same blend today. Sanders’ exact recipe is one of KFC’s best-kept secrets, of course, but we do know one thing: Sanders used a steamer, which significantly shortened his cooking times compared to preparing the chicken in a pan.
Self-marketing is everything
In 1935, the governor of Kentucky awarded Sanders the unofficial title of “Colonel of Kentucky”. As part of his unique self-marketing strategy, he began referring to himself as ColonelSanders and wearing white linen to bolster his “typical Southern gentleman” image. After that, all he needed was his friendly smile, and the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken was born. In 1952, armed with his secret recipe and a white linen suit, the Colonel opened up his first franchise restaurant in Salt Lake City—which is still open today. His traveling-sales concept and his marketing prowess proved a winning combination, and Sanders was soon at the helm of one of the world’s largest fast-food chains. He earned his first million at age 65. After retiring from cooking in 1964 and selling the company to an investment group for two million euros, he continued working as the company’s public representative; throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, his face and his relaxed demeanor were featured in a number of KFC commercials. Sanders coined the slogan “Finger-lickin’ good” as his own personal attestation to the quality of the products. Fun fact: Sanders didn’t hold back when he saw something he didn’t like—for example, if the food at one of the restaurants wasn’t up to par. In 1975, KFC even sued him, demanding that he stop making certain negative remarks, but the lawsuit was dismissed.
It seems that the entrepreneur did have a few small regrets after selling the company, though: he later bought its original headquarters in Shelbyville for himself and opened Claudia Sanders’ Dinner House—named after his second wife—on the premises. Sanders died of leukemia at the age of 90, and was buried in Louisville, wearing his trademark white suit and black tie. After all, you know what they say about never changing a winning team.