When people hear Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC, most will probably have an image of a striking elderly man in a white suite, with white goatee, eyebrows and hair. Or, Colonel Sanders, to be more precise. That’s because he has been the image of the popular fast-food chain for decades, with slight variations. Or in other words, no matter how the logo of the company or the ad campaigns have changed, Colonel Sanders has always been the emblematic center piece for them.
But did you know that the actors that play him are not, in fact, portraying a fictional character as you would expect? Most people believe that, in order to send a message of “Southern hospitality” with a bit of class or something (which is indeed part of the point), he is made up and like Ronald Mcdonald and many other company mascots, he is not a real person. But, until his death in 1980, at the ripe age of 90 years old(!), Colonel Harland Sanders really did exist as a real person. And an inspiring one too. Because if you take a look at the man behind the chicken recipe millions of consumers love, you’ll find some interesting facts and see he didn’t have it easy, yet he pulled through.
1. A bit of a rolling stone
Born in 1890, in Henryville, Indiana in the USA, Harland David Sanders’ life was “abrupt” from the start, as his father, when he was 5 years old, during the span of one day, got ill, came home from work with a fever and then died. Just several years later, in the 7th grade, Harland was abandoning school because he had to put some distance between him and his abusive stepfather, the man his mother had remarried. As for his adult life, he was a Jack of all trades, master of none (until he found his culinary mastery that is…), working diverse jobs ranging from fireman to insurance salesman to lawyer (yes, he also hot a Law degree), but never managing to stay in them for long. Which is why, along with catching him cheating, is why his first wife left him.
2. Military but no rank
At 16 years old, he used a fake birth-date on his papers and enrolled into the army. He served in Cuba as a trucker and completed his service. But that’s about it with the army. He didn’t stay for more than a year, when he was honorably discharged, and he didn’t gain any rank. But, in 1950, he was given the title of Kentucky Colonel (which is awarded for services to the community, state or country, with no military duties or pay) by Governor Lawrence Wetherby, and he changed his dressing style and asked friends and associates to address him as Colonel Sanders from then on, which slowly (and initially, jokingly), they did.
3. The first “Kentucky Fried Chicken”
The name “Kentucky Fried Chicken” has a convoluted birth. It was coined by a sign painter who worked for a restaurant owner named Pete Harman, the first person that Sanders had franchised his recipe to in the early years of his business endeavors. You see, during the Great Depression, Sanders was offered his own place to run a restaurant, free of charge, as part of a gas station in North Corbin, KY and that’s where the story of KFC starts. But he didn’t settle for just selling his (about to be famous) chicken dish there, and he started diligently travelling around in order to entice other restaurant owners to franchise his recipe, which meant he got part of the income on any chicken dish sold using his recipe (for example 0.04$ per chicken).
4. Wildfire success
The idea of franchising paid off fast and well. As gradually, people started coming to him to ask if he would franchise to them, and his recipe started being adopted rapidly in other states and finally, internationally, with the first franchises opening up in the mid-60s’ in Canada, England, Mexico and Jamaica. It got to the point at which there where more than 600 locations selling KFC, so in 1964, an aging Sanders sold the company for 2 million $ and an annual salary of 40 000$ for being the company’s image and promoter, to a couple of business men, John Y. Brown Jr. and Jack C. Massey.
5. Values are important
Colonel Harland Sanders was a goodwill ambassador of Kentucky Fried Chicken from immediately after selling the company up to his death. And he took his job seriously, despite working for a company he formerly owned. In fact, a month before his death by pneumonia as he was afflicted with severe leukemia, in 1980, Sanders appeared, as usual in front of crowds and carried on his duties.
What’s more, during the whole course of his life he was very strict about the quality of the food served under the name KFC. He would visit locations all the time (about 200 000 miles a year) and if something was prepared poorly or varied too much from the recipe, he would bluntly call the gravy “Sludge!” and push the food to the floor, then use “the force and variety of his swearing” (as New Yorker put it), to get workers back on the right track.
His distaste for the direction that KFC took and the declining quality of the food grew until it became so pronounced that he opened a competing restaurant named “The Colonel’s Lady” for his wife in which he served the Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe. This lead to a lawsuit from the company, which they won. But the restaurant, after changing its name, still exists and now boasts serving “the original recipe”.
As mentioned above, this disagreement didn’t stop him from being the company’s image right up to his death.