The story of vintage KFC restaurants is unique not just because the chain became a huge success, but also because the company’s founder — a real person actually named Colonel Sanders — started Kentucky Fried Chicken past the age when most men retired.
Looking back at vintage KFC history: Col. Sanders made the most of a name & a recipe
Article from The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) November 29, 1976
Out of business, out of luck and virtually out of money, Col. Harland Sanders set out one day in 1956 to make a new life for himself.
At 66, the colonel didn’t have much to sell except his goateed, mustachioed image and his secret recipe for fried chicken.
At that time, the concept of fast food franchising was in its infancy. But Sanders, nothing if not a man of vision, was intrigued by it. His goal was to franchise his chicken in 100 restaurants in Kentucky, Illinois and Ohio. He would ask a nickel per serving, the rest going to the restaurant.
It wasn’t easy, at first. Restaurant owners were amused by the audacious little man in his black string tie and white plantation suit. And they had to admit that his fried chicken was, as he claimed, “finger lickin’ good.”
But Sanders had trouble making them bite on the franchise idea. So, using his Social Security money and what he had made by selling his motel-restaurant-gas station complex in Corbin, Kentucky, Sanders had to drive thousands of miles before finally selling the first franchise in Salt Lake City.
“My wife and I spent many nights on the road, sleeping in the car,” Sanders once said. “But hardships never hurt anybody. They just prepare you for something better,”
Today, 20 years later, it’s almost impossible to find any town on Earth that doesn’t have at least one Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. With 5,283 stores in 44 countries, KFC outranks McDonald’s as the No. 1 fast-food chain in the world.
To put the KFC story in another perspective, the company fried and served 260 million chickens in 1975. That figures out to be 800 million meals and almost 2.4 billion pieces of chicken — enough for 11 pieces for every man, woman and child in the United States.
All this has made Sanders a millionaire and an international celebrity. Indeed, other than Santa Claus, Sanders and fellow Kentuckian Muhammad Ali might well be the most readily identifiable figures in the world today.
As Sanders likes to say, “There’s no one in the world the name ‘Kentucky’ has meant more to than me.”
Interestingly, the man who has capitalized off Kentucky more than anyone isn’t even a native.
Sanders was born Sept. 9, 1890, on a farm near Henryville, Indiana. Fortunately for him, he finally settled in Kentucky. Somehow, the name “Hoosier Fried Chicken” just doesn’t have a catchy ring to it.
Born to poor parents, Sanders quit school after the sixth grade so he could support his widowed mother and younger brother and sister by working for $2 a day on a neighbor’s farm.
During the next 30 or so years, Sanders worked at several different jobs — Army service, railroad laborer, fireman, cook, insurance salesman. He was on the road selling tires one day in the late 1920s when a bridge cable broke. Sanders and a new car tumbled 42 feet into a stream near Nicholasville, Ky.
Although Sanders survived, he found himself without transportation, so he gave up the traveling salesman business to open a service station in Nicholasville. He did so well that, in 1929, a major oil company built him a new station on U.S. 25, near Corbin.
Ever the salesman, Sanders advertised “Free Air” for tires. That helped him make enough money to open a small restaurant and, later, a motel.
His restaurant menu was built around chicken fried the way his mother had taught him as a boy in Indiana. Served with hot biscuits and honey, the chicken sold well, despite this motto on the bottom of the menu: “Not worth it, but mighty good.”
Named a Kentucky colonel in 1936, Sanders proceeded to get more mileage from that honorary title than anyone in history. Soon he began playing the role of the goateed, mustachioed Kentucky colonel — a role that later was to become the most famous trademark in the world.
In 1948, after divorcing his first wife, Sanders married Claudia Price, also a divorcee. She had gone to work for him in 1930 as a waitress, then helped him run various other business ventures in North Carolina and Florida. She later did a lot of work in helping Sanders franchise his chicken.
By 1955, Sanders’ business was doing so well that he turned down an offer of $164,000 for it. A year later, however, Sanders could hardly give his business away, due to the announcement that a new interstate highway, I-75, would be built seven miles away.
To the merchants along U.S. 25, the new road meant doom. Once the new highway was built, U.S. 25 would become a ghost highway.
Within a year of the announcement, Sanders’ business had fallen off so badly that his complex was sold at public auction for a price considerably less than the $164,000 offer he had refused.
That’s when he and Mrs. Sanders hit the road to sell the colonel and his fried-chicken recipe. As Sanders once explained to reporter Irene Reid of The Courier-Journal, he and his wife used an “act” to promote franchises:
“When I would get a franchise in a restaurant — they didn’t have carry-out places in those days — I would dress up in my colonel suit and fry the chicken. And Claudia, she would dress up in this antebellum dress — it was a fine dress. She would serve as hostess in the dining room. Then I would come out to do the coloneling — hand out recipes to the ladies.”
The idea began to catch on in the late 1950s. By 1964, in fact, Sanders had 600 outlets across the country and earnings of $1,000 a day.
In the early days, he and Mrs. Sanders would measure out the herbs and spices at home, then package them and put them on railroad cars to be shipped to the outlets.
The colonel moved to Shelbyville to be closer to airports and railroads, but the business had grown so big that he decided to sell out in 1964 to a syndicate headed by John Y. Brown Jr. of Louisville and Jack Massey of Nashville, Tenn.
The new owners paid Sanders $2 million for his business, his recipe, and his image. They also hired Sanders [at age 73] as their “goodwill ambassador” for $40,000 a year for the rest of his life.
“I thought it best to sell so I’d have my estate liquid, and I could handle myself,” said Sanders. “This way, I can do something for my grandchildren now, and perpetuate the company, too.”
Traveling all over the world to make commercials, open restaurants and promote KFC, Sanders earned his salary. However, at times KFC had to wonder whether the goodwill he generated was worth the problems he caused them.
In 1974, for example, Sanders sued: Heublein, Inc. — the company that had bought KFC from Brown’s group — for $122 million, on the grounds that Heublein was misusing Sanders’ name, image and likeness in promoting products with which he was never connected.
No sooner had that suit been settled out of court, however, than Sanders was complaining to newspaper reporters that the chicken made by Heublein was “the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Moreover, the colonel likened KFC’s mashed potatoes to wallpaper paste and its gravy to sludge.
Still feisty at 86, and still traveling a quarter-of-a-million miles a year as KFC’s goodwill ambassador, Sanders says he hopes to live, and work, until he’s 100.
When he dies, he will be laid to rest in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery in the tomb he already has built — a granite portico with four columns and a 2-foot-high bust of himself.
And if he gets to heaven, Sanders almost surely will find a Kentucky Fried Chicken store by the pearly gates.
Vintage KFC TV commercial: Who doesn’t know about Col Sanders’ chicken?
Vintage KFC restaurants with iconic red & white striped roof
Col. Sanders has a secret for chicken, living (1971)
By Lee Mueller – The Scranton Times-Tribune (Pennsylvania) June 20, 1971
Louisville (NEA) — Faces foisted upon the world by the advertising media spin past in a blur of magazine pages, television blurbs and newspaper ink. They call for Phillip Morris and a whole kernel of wheat in every flake, and sometimes insinuate they can make you belch.
Phony, most of them. Like Poppin’ Fresh and Sugar Bear and Happy Tooth, they represent a product, not a person. Now meet a person (and a product): Colonel Harland Sanders.
In a world filled with put-ups and put-ons, Col. Sanders and his finger-lickin’ Kentucky Fried Chicken are authentic articles. The white hair, white mustache and white goatee are as real as the walnut-sized diamond ring on his right hand.
He is 80 years old, stubborn, persnickety, independent and healthy. When he checked out of the Waldorf-Astoria in New York recently, he carried his own luggage and shook off two bellhops in the lobby. “Work don’t hurt nobody,” he likes to say. “You’ll rust out quicker’n you’ll wear out.”
The Colonel really does have a secret recipe (with 11 herbs and spices), and he really invented it himself many years ago in Corbin, where he operated a restaurant.
He really does care about his chicken, like they say, and he really does have lots of money. (The Colonel once bought a white Rolls-Royce and had 24-carat gold chickens emblazoned on both front doors.)
Col. Sanders credits his health to the fact that he neither smokes nor drinks. “Way back, years and years ago, I used a little liquor,” he admits, “but I found out that as weak as my mind was, I didn’t have no mind a’tall when I used liquor.”
He is famous among chicken people, however, for the force and flair of his swearing. The Colonel claims that, as a fifth-grade dropout, he never had much of a vocabulary.
“I quit cussin’ two years ago, and lost over half of what I had left,” — he says, smiling. Still, it has: been noted that he still has great difficulty calling a no-good, lazy, incompetent, dishonest, no-‘count son of a possum by any but his rightful name.
Which brings up the subject of gravy, as do most things connected with Col. Sanders.
Even after the Colonel sold his company in 1964 for $2 million, some stock and a lifetime salary of $75,000 a year, he remained a perfectionist in an imperfect world.
Contracted to promote Kentucky Fried Chicken and himself, he travels 200,000 miles a year “so damn fast, sometimes I meet myself coming back.”
And always, in his travels, he will re unexpectedly into a KFC outlet to inspect the kitchen and sample the gravy. Ne dreams, he says, of fried chicken so golden and delicious that it’d make a man cry and of gravy 30 sublime that “it’ll make you throw away the darn chicken and just eat the gravy.”
Since Col. Sanders sold out, the gravy served by KFC franchisers has been good, but it has not been the colonel’s. “The colonel’s gravy involved too much time, it left too much room for human error and # was too expensive,” said a company representative.
For years, he raged against the KFC gravy, with such withering critiques as, “How do you serve this slop? With a straw?” Now, Col. Sanders apparently has won.
Kentucky Fried Chicken Corp., with franchises in every state and 23 countries, which grew from $30 million to $600 million in sales during a six-year period, lost money last year. A lot of money. Now, KFC is going through what it calls a “re-Colonelization” process.
“They’re getting back to my basic principles,” the colonel said. “We’re going back to making 100 percent milk gravy and throwing out the gravy base they’ve been using — which is a couple of various elements that taste like wallpaper paste.” The chicken also is in for some changes.
The natural crimson in Col. Sanders’ face glows. “We’re gettin’ straightened out,” he said. “‘We’ve got rid of a lot of vice presidents who were unknowledgeable about what we were trying to do. For a while, it seems as though all you had to do to be a vice president at KFC was to have been a good football player or a good encyclopedia salesman.”
The man who owns most of KFC, as it happens, is John Y. Brown Jr., a young Louisville Attorney who once sold encyclopedias. If Brown was responsible for the phenomenal growth of KFC — as many contend — the Colonel apparently holds him at least in part responsible for its recent slip.
Although he can be cantankerous in private, Col. Sanders is nearly always a smoothie in public. (“He thinks he’s Santa Claus,” said his wife, Claudia.) Children love him and he, in fact, loves children.
“If I had my way, I’d fill that 10-room house of ours in Shelbyville up with children,” he said. “I love children and old people. The middle-aged people can take care of themselves. I like old people, because someday I might get old myself.”
Kentucky Colonel (an honorary title conferred by the state) Sanders was born in 1860 near Henryville, Indiana. When he was six, his father died, and his mother was forced to work. This meant little Harland Sanders had to take care of his younger sister and brother, and had to do much of the cooking.
By the time he was seven, he was excelling in bread and vegetables and coming along nicely in meat. At 12, however, Sanders’ mother married a man not fond of stepchildren, so he and his brother left home.
For the next 30 years or 90, the colonel had a varied career. He worked as a streetcar conductor; served in the Army; got married and had three children, worked on railroads; studied law by correspondence and practiced in justice-of-the-peace courts; sold insurance; operated a steamboat ferry between Lousiville and Jeffersonville, Indiana; worked as the secretary of the Columbus, Indiana, Chamber of Commerce; manufactured acetylene lighting systems for farmers; sold tires; and ran two service stations in Kentucky.
In Corbin, where he ran his last gas station, he cooked for his family in a back room, and, to make extra cash, began selling an occasional meal to travelers. It was here he discovered his secret recipe.
Word spread that there was terrific grub up at the Sanders’ place, so the colonel did away with his gas pumps and opened a restaurant. By the late 1930s, he had acquired a regional reputation, and was listed in Duncan Hines [restaurant list].
All this time, Sanders was pan-frying his chicken, a slow process. “Took 35 minutes,” he recalled. “By the time I finished, all the customers would be gone.”
Then in 1939, he hit upon the idea of frying his chicken under pressure in a pressure cooker. It took seven minutes, and the product was still absolutely finger-lickin’ good.
The restaurant prospered until 1956 when a new interstate highway bypassed it. Meanwhile, though, a good friend in Salt Lake City, Pete Harman, was having incredible luck with Sanders’ chicken-frying process.
So, at 66 — already equipped with a goatee and mustache and secret recipe — Col. Harland Sanders decided to go into the franchise business in earnest.
The rest is so much milk gravy under the bridge.
Postscript: Colonel Harland David Sanders died on December 16, 1980. He was buried at a cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.
Vintage KFC TV commercial: It means chicken, fried just one way
Inside a vintage Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant (1960s)
Counter areas in KFC stores are always spotless — service is always given with a smile.
Kentucky Fried Kitchen: Preparing the food (1960s)
Vintage KFC franchises in the ’70s
Kentucky Roast Beef?
Briefly, Vintage KFC tried to expand the business, and used Colonel Sanders’ recipe for beef (and Kentucky Ham) at Kentucky Beef restaurants. In the early ’70s, there were about 100 of the outlets before the concept was considered a no-go.