Colonel Sanders, the image behind the KFC brand, largely disappeared from KFC commercials until recently, when Darrell Hammond took over the role earlier this year, only to be met with controversy over the fact that Hammond’s Colonel caricature came off as disrespectful of the original Colonel Sanders (Hammond was subsequently replaced by Norm MacDonald).
Many may not have even realized, however, that Colonel Sanders was a real person, and not just a logo on KFC’s restaurant signs and chicken buckets. In fact, Harland David Sanders not only created the company, but after he sold it, acted as the goodwill ambassador for KFC for the last 20 years of his life. And yes: He looked just he does on the KFC signs, and was never seen in public over the last two decades of his life without wearing his signature white suit and goatee. He was also a “Colonel,” but not in the military sense. Colonel was like the Kentucky equivalent of being knighted in England.
Sanders himself was what we in the South might call a tough SOB. He lived a hard life full of failures. His dad dropped dead of a fever when Sanders was just a kid. He had a son who died of a tonsil infection. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade, and spent much of his life working hard, labor-intensive jobs, like a blacksmith’s helper, a fireman, and a railroad laborer. He eventually got a law degree through correspondence school, though he lost his job as a lawyer after getting in a brawl with his own client. These “brawls” were common throughout his life. In fact, in the 1930s while running a service station, he got in a shootout with a competitor that left one man dead and his competitor with a bullet wound to his shoulder, compliments of Colonel (f**king) Sanders.
It was in the gas-station business where Colonel Sanders finally began to gain some traction. He sold his fried chicken over the counter until it was popular enough that he could open an adjoining restaurant, which subsequently burned down. He rebuilt it, along with a motel, and when he was 50, he came up with the “Secret Recipe” behind KFC’s chicken. It wasn’t until he was 62 — in 1952 — before he offered his recipe to another restaurant in Utah, which became the first official KFC franchise (sales in that restaurant tripled in the first year).
When Sanders was 65, the worst thing that could possibly happen to him turned into the best thing. Interstate 75 was built, and Sanders lost so much business that he was forced to shut down. He was broke, with only $105 left to his name. That’s when Sanders decided to go into the franchising business. He traveled the country, often sleeping in his car, in an effort to franchise his chicken, and he was reportedly rejected 1,009 times before he got his first franchise.
The approach was successful. By 1964, there were more than 600 locations, so many that the 74-year-old Sanders couldn’t handle it. He sold off the franchise to two businessmen for $2 million and an annual $40,000 salary to act as the corporation’s goodwill ambassador (he’d eventually earn up to $250,000 a year for appearing in TV spots).
But here’s where it gets interesting, because Colonel Sanders was an intractable old coot. His likeness was on the restaurant, and he traveled the country supporting it, so he held those restaurants up to a high standard. He’d visit franchises around the country, and if he didn’t like what he saw (or ate), he’d say so, often with a lot of profanity. There were 5,500 restaurants, and the Colonel gained a reputation in the 1970s for having swear-filled outbursts in several of them.
In fact, when KFC changed the “secret recipe” of both the chicken and the gravy, Colonel Sanders was quoted as saying in one New York restaurant, “This is the worst fried chicken I’ve ever seen.” He also berated the gravy as “sludge,” saying it was “nothing more than wallpaper paste.” In fact, he called the new crispy fried chicken ““a damn fried doughball put on top of some chicken.”
KFC had apparently been forced to change the gravy recipe because — with 5,500 restaurants — they had to simplify the process. But Sanders was so angry about it that he announced plans to open a new, competing restaurant, named after his mistress-turned-wife: “Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady.” KFC sued him for $120 million (the lawsuit was eventually settled for $1 million and Sanders sold the restaurant off, though it still exists in Shelbyville, Kentucky, under the name Claudia Sanders Dinner House).
Five years after the war between Colonel Sanders and KFC was settled, Sanders died of leukemia. He was 90 years old.
Thirty-five years later, there are 18,875 KFC outlets around the world, and having worked in one as a teenager, and eaten in one within the last three years, I can attest to Sanders’ opinion: The chicken is terrible, and the gravy is worse.