BY JEFF OLSON –
H.D. was born on September 9, 1890 in Henryville, Indiana. When he was six years old, his father passed away leaving him to cook and care for his siblings. In seventh grade he dropped out of school and left home to go work as a farmhand. While he was a bold young man with a strong sense for challenge and adventure, he found no real sense of direction or purpose until many years later.
At age 16, falsifying his date of birth, he enlisted in the United States Army. After being honorably discharged a year later, he got hired by the railway as a laborer. While he worked for the railway, he studied law by correspondence and practiced in justice-of-the-peace courts in Arkansas until a courtroom brawl with a client ended his legal career. Then he found a job selling life insurance. Did he last long? No, he got fired for insubordination. At this point, H.D.’s future looked quite dim and unpromising to say the least.
Not one to give up, H.D. operated a steamboat ferry that crossed the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana. Later, he tried cashing in his ferry boat business to create a lamp manufacturing company only to find out that another company already sold a better version of his lamp.
It was then, at about age 40, that “It came to me that the one thing I could do was cook. And I figured I couldn’t do any worse than the people running these places around town.” So, H.D. went to work at a gas station in North Corbin, Kentucky. When he wasn’t pumping gas or repairing tires, he was cooking and serving fried chicken. The recipe he’d been working on, frying chicken with a unique blend of herbs and spices in a new device called a pressure cooker, began proving successful so he opened a restaurant across the street. His restaurant became very popular over the next decade; so popular in fact that the governor of the state named H.D. a colonel in 1950, the highest title of honor the state could give.
In 1948, H.D. married Claudia Price, whom he met in the 1930’s when she worked as a waitress in his restaurant in Corbin. Following the war, he set out to franchise his restaurant, but his recipe was rejected over 1,000 times. Finally, in 1952, it was accepted by Pete Harman, who owned one of Salt Lake City’s largest restaurants. After Harman’s success, several other restaurant owners franchised the concept and paid H.D. $0.04 per chicken. Harman soon came up with a catchy restaurant moniker, which is still in use today. H.D. still operated his restaurant in Corbin but, after Interstate 75 opened, the reduced customer traffic severely reduced his business so he sold it in 1956.
At age 65, and with only his savings and $105 per month from Social Security, H.D. decided to focus exclusively on franchising his idea so he hit the American road in his 1946 Ford. With the car (often also serving as a bed) packed with pressure cookers, flour, and spice blends, he would enter a restaurant, offer to cook his chicken, and then negotiate franchise rights if the owners liked what they tasted. By 1963, he was receiving franchise requests without having to travel much and had more than 600 restaurants across the U.S. and Canada. During these years, Claudia would remain at home packaging phone-in orders and taking them to the train station, sometimes late at night. In early 1965, knowing he’d taken his company as far as he could at age 74, he sold his interest in the company for $2 million to a group of investors. Some believed he should have received more money, but as a company executive stated, “With the Colonel, it isn’t money that counts, it’s artistic talent.” Before and after they sold the chain, H.D. and Claudia traveled the world promoting their fried chicken. As she later recounted, ”I went into restaurants all over the country and played the part of the hostess with this antebellum dress on.” As a company executive put it, ”We could not have been the company we are now without Claudia’s contributions.”
By now you’ve probably figured out who this senior citizen was that would never give up, who was not content with a social security check and a savings account, who saw failure as a stepping stone to something better, and who has inspired so many – Harland David Sanders. Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) went public in 1966 and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1969. More than 3,500 franchised and company-owned restaurants were in worldwide operation in 1971. KFC was acquired in October 1986 from RJR Nabisco, Inc., by PepsiCo, Inc., for approximately $840 million.
Colonel Sanders died of leukemia on December 16, 1980 at the age of 90 in Louisville, Kentucky. At the time of his death, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 countries worldwide. By 2013, there were an estimated 18,000 KFC locations in 118 countries. Claudia passed away in 1997 at the age of 94.
Today, the Colonel remains the center of KFC’s branding and his face still appears in their logo. His goatee, white suit, and western string tie continue to symbolize not only delicious “finger lickin’ good” fried chicken all over the world, but perhaps more importantly they symbolize the indomitable spirit of the American dream, the entrepreneur – that special class of men and women whose dreams, faith, determination, innovation, and courage have helped to make our nation the greatest economy and land of opportunity the world has ever known. In Sander’s words, “I made a resolve then that I was going to amount to something if I could. And no hours, nor amount of labor, nor amount of money would deter me from giving the best that there was in me. And I have done that ever since, and I win by it. I know.” “It makes me feel good that my food has helped make life a little easier for people.”