Fry Hard with a Vengeance: The Untold Story of KFC’s Colonel Sanders (Part 1)


Did you know there is a National Be A Millionaire Day? When you think of being a millionaire, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Fried chicken, right? No? Anyways, we’re sure many of you have come across Colonel Sanders’ story of rags to riches whether on LinkedIn or Facebook. And while there are many variations to this story, they’re frequently abbreviated to focus on losses and failures that eventually led to legendary success to highlight the messages that “It’s never too late to become an entrepreneur!” and to “Never give up!”. These stories are abbreviated, but never exaggerated, as the Colonel’s life really is just that crazy. And while you can get the fully unabridged version straight from the horse’s mouth in various autobiographies, we’re here to give you a slightly less abridged version that is nonetheless a helluva journey.

Colonel Sanders vs. Fried Chicken Funny

Get ready...this is gonna pack a punch!

The Origin Story: A Shakespearean Tragedy (Sort Of)

Every hero has an origin story although Colonel Sanders’ sounds more like that of a villain. Harland Sanders was born in 1890 to a super religious mother who taught him that alcohol, tobacco, coffee, and playing cards were evil. His father passed away when he was 5 years old leaving no one to balance out that crazy equation (not that the Colonel was a fan of algebra…). At that age, I couldn’t even open a Go-Gurt without adult supervision, yet as the eldest of three siblings, it fell on Harland’s shoulders to take care of the family, and so he developed his cooking skills (if this were fiction, this would be foreshadowing).

When he was 12, his mother remarried a man who wasn’t fond of stepchildren (and especially not Harland), and so he had to go make his way in the world. Initially, he worked on a farm while going to school, but eventually he quit school. In his words, “algebra’s what drove me off.” We know that feel, bro! Over the next 3 decades, he would bounce from job to job to job before eventually becoming the Colonel, but we’ll get to that later.

Harland married his first wife Josephine at age 18, and they had three children together. However as he didn’t provide much stability (due to his knack of bouncing from job to job to job), Josephine left him, taking the kids with her back to her parents’ home. So what does a man do in these circumstances? Well, whatever that would be is not relevant here, as what Harland decides to do is to kidnap his children. His plan was simple, he would wait in the woods near his in-law’s house and kidnap the kids when they come out to play. The kink in the plan was that the kids did not come out to play… Onto Plan B: Harland goes to speak to his father-in-law and then makes peace with his wife. This highlights just how much Harland loved his kids which makes it all the more tragic when his son Harland Junior dies at the age of 20 from a simple, routine tonsillectomy. And while he reconciled with his wife, it remained a loveless marriage until they divorced 40 years later.

American Hustle

Despite all the tragedies, Harland Sanders epitomized the American Hustle, having the most bonkers LinkedIn profile before finding success with fried chicken. And while many stories highlight these career changes as failures, the reality is that he didn’t lose jobs, so much as he got bored of them and abandoned them for the next hustle (at least for some of them, while for others, he had it coming).

As you already know, he started off as a farmhand at the age of 12 while going to school. When algebra drove him out of school at the age of 16, he left for New Albany where his uncle got him a job as a streetcar conductor. That same year, he falsified his age, joined the Army, and shipped out to Cuba. In the span of about 5 months, he completed his service commitment as a wagoner, was awarded the Cuban Pacification Medal, and was honorably discharged (likely for being underage). For the next several years, he worked for various railroad companies such as a blacksmith’s helper, ash pan cleaner, and steam engine stoker. At one point, he was fired for brawling with a colleague. But that’s okay, because he’d been studying law and was now ready to start his legal career. This went pretty well for three years until he got in a brawl with his client and was banned from practicing law… In his autobiography, Sanders would explain that “I decided I didn’t want to be a lawyer anymore.” And so he went back to railroad work before landing a job selling life insurance. You’re probably seeing a trend by now and won’t be at all surprised that he was fired from this job for insubordination. In the words of his biographer John Ed Pearce, “[Sanders] had encountered repeated failure largely through bullheadedness, a lack of self-control, impatience, and a self-righteous lack of diplomacy." And yet, this never stopped him from hustling and working all kinds of odd jobs such as a ferry boat operator, a tire salesman, and even a midwife (in his words because “Husbands couldn’t afford doctors when their wives were pregnant.” and “There was no one else to do it.”).

The Shell Oil Company (yes, that Shell) would eventually offer Sanders the opportunity to run a service station by a busy highway (and the benefit of living in the back of the station). Carrying on his childhood tradition, he would cook for his family and finish every week with a Sunday dinner of country ham, steak, and fried chicken. Travelers passing through his station would ask for dining recommendations, and realizing he could recommend himself, started serving “Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week”. He promoted this new hustle by painting giant signs on barns in the area (he was really ahead of the times). This didn’t sit well with Matt Stewart, the owner of a competing service station, who painted over Sanders’ signs. Being the diplomatic man that he was, Sanders threatened to shoot Stewart if he carried on with his shenanigans. What he didn’t expect was for Stewart to shoot first and kill his coworker. Sanders shot back (because of course he was also packing heat) and wounded Stewart who would be arrested for murder. Sanders got off scot-free for self-defense. That’s one way to get rid of competition… (*legal disclaimer: this is not a good way to get rid of competition). And so his service station continued to grow in popularity, and he would eventually convert it into a full-fledged restaurant Sanders Cafe (as an aside, Claudia Ledington would join the Cafe as a waitress, become Sanders’ mistress, and eventually marry Sanders to become his life and business partner). He became so well-known that he was awarded the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel “in recognition of his contributions to the state’s cuisine” which made him the Colonel Sanders we now know and love. He would even go on to be featured in Duncan Hines’ “Adventures in Good Eating” which is kinda like getting a Michelin Star and was much better in the way of marketing than painting giant signs and shooting competitors.

Interestingly, for the first 10 years or so of this culinary journey, Sanders rarely served fried chicken. Pan frying chicken took too long, while deep frying chicken produced dry meat. However in 1939, the pressure cooker was commercially released, and Sanders invented the method of using it to pressure fry chicken. Combining this breakthrough with his now perfected secret 11 spice blend, Sanders was ready to move onward and upward with the sky as the limit. He was made, a true rags to riches story...not!

Billions and Billions

In the early 1950s, the highway that contributed to his success was moved to another site, and then a new highway was built that took the remaining traffic away from his restaurant. Sadly, he was forced to auction his restaurant at a loss and he was back to square one living on his savings and a Social Security check of $105 a month.

Except, not quite square one! He had his chicken-frying method, secret 11 spice blend, and fighting spirit! And he already had proof of principle in franchising, as several years earlier, he taught his method and recipe to his friend Pete Harman in Salt Lake City who went on to successfully sell Sanders’ “Kentucky Fried Chicken” in the soon-to-be trademark bucket while coining the phrase “finger-lickin’ good”. So he got in his car with Claudia and his trusty pressure cooker and drove around the country (and Canada) from restaurant to restaurant convincing the owners to sell his “Kentucky Fried Chicken” with Sanders taking 4 cents per chicken sold. This was not at all glamorous as the two would frequently sleep in their car and beg friends for food. He truly wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty (literally, as part of the reason he adopted his signature white suit was to hide the flour stains). However by 1964, Sanders had over 600 restaurants in the US and Canada.

Smelling that sweet sweet success, financial vultures (a.k.a. investors) Brown and Massey soon swooped in and tried to convince Sanders to sell his company. Sanders was hesitant as KFC was his child, and we know how important his children were to him. He didn’t want some strangers running his legacy into the ground. In spite of the resistance, the investors pitched that Sanders should retire and enjoy life while promising that they would take care of his company and his recipe. Not only that, but they would keep him on as the face of KFC. After several weeks of persuasion, Sanders finally caved and sold his company for $2 million. Not quite billions and billions, but it was a lot at that time, and he was able to live happily ever after...not!

Well, that’s enough for today, stay tuned for Part 2 and more Colonel Sanders craziness.

Stay finger-lickin' good!

Eric and Sophie

Image Source: GIPHY

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