When we look at the history of KFC, you have to discuss Harland David Sanders. Harlan Sanders was born on September 9, 1890 in Henryville Indiana. When he was 6 years old his father died. This left his mother to take care of 3 young kids. As a result, Harland had to work many jobs from a very young age. Some of the jobs he worked included, farmer, streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, justice of the peace, ferryboat operator and insurance salesman.
When Harland Sanders was 40, he was running a service station in Corbin, Kentucky. He had one table and would feed hungry travelers who would stop by. His specialty was of course fried chicken. His chicken was so good, that he was named an honorary Kentucky colonel by Governor Ruby Laffoon. This was an important step in the history of KFC.
What Is An Honorary Colonel?
As I have been sifting through the history of KFC, I have wondered where Harland picked up the title of colonel. I did some research and found that the title of Kentucky colonel began in 1813. It is the highest title of honor given by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Commissions for this high honor can only be given by the Governor and Secretary of State. It is a recognition of outstanding service to a community, state or nation. Only other honorary colonels or the governor can nominate someone for the title of honorary colonel.
The Colonel’s Fame Spreads
Colonel Sanders had an inkling that he was onto something big. He moved his operation across the street to a larger filling station that he had purchased. Gone were the days of feeding hungry folks at his own table. His new operation boasted 6 tables.
The chicken continued to sell rapidly. The only thing standing between the Colonel and a booming business, was the size of his operation and the time it took to cook his chicken.
Sanders addressed the first issue in 1937 by expanding his restaurant to 142 seats. He also continued to focus on the weary traveler by adding a motel. He named it Sanders Court & Cafe.
That left the second issue. It currently took Colonel Sanders 35 minutes to fry up the chicken. He was staunchly old school. He pan fried all of his chicken. Deep frying would certainly make the process go much more quickly, but Sanders viewed deep fried chicken as inferior in quality to what he could produce. He was insanely obsessive with the quality of his product.
His obsession with quality ruled out cooking the chicken ahead of time as another viable solution. It was hard to get chicken cooked in advance to remain juicy and delicious. It was also hard to gauge demand on a day to day basis and cooking ahead led to chicken being thrown away at the end of the day.
The Rise of The Pressure Cooker
In 1939 pressure cookers started to come on the scene. They were designed to do simple tasks, like steaming vegetables. Sanders grabbed one and modified it to fry chicken. Essentially turning it into a pressure fryer. This dramatically reduced his 35 minute cook time and produced chicken that passed the Colonel’s strict standards for quality.
The history of KFC is fascinating. I could almost do a whole episode on how the pressure fryer has evolved through the years for KFC. Let me give you a quick run down. In a pressure fryer, food can hit 250 degrees Fahrenheit internally. Using the pan fry method, food will hit 215 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pressure cooking had its moment in the early 1940s. It was incredibly popular. When I think of pressure cooking today, I think of the ever popular instant pot. With an instant pot, there is a lot of technology that goes into ensuring it doesn’t explode from the pressure. In the 1940s, pressure cookers had no such safety mechanisms. They would literally blow up on people, causing serious injuries.
A pressure cooker is designed to handle temperatures around 250 degrees Fahrenheit. Adding oil to the equation can dramatically increase the temperature to around 320 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course by adding more heat you also will increase the pressure. This caused failure of the gaskets and, boom! Hot oil would then be spewed all over the kitchen. Early in the history of KFC, their fryers were not immune to this and in the early days a few cooks were injured by exploding cookers.
Thankfully for everyone involved, a few companies took on the challenge of producing a commercial grade pressure cooker that was suitable for frying.
A Break for A Chicken Story
Before I dive back into Colonel Sanders, I wanted to break up the show and share a fun chicken story and some fun fried chicken facts.
I absolutely adore fried chicken. I’ve only ever had one truly bad experience with fried chicken. When I was living in Tennessee, I had a bad head cold. When I get sick I crave junk like no other. I worked just around the corner from a Kroger and fried chicken was starting to sound really good.
I am of the opinion that there is no such thing as bad fried chicken. There is just good fried chicken and better fried chicken. Dry fried chicken can be masked with copious amounts of gravy, and soggy breading can always be forgiven. However, on this particular day I ended up experiencing an unforgivable chicken sin.
The Unforgivable Chicken Sin
On this particular day, my head was so plugged up I was almost dizzy. I headed to the deli counter where I had a date with a single chicken tender. I paid for the chicken and began to munch on it as I walked back to my car.
Something was off. I immediately realized that this wasn’t your normal grocery store chicken. The texture was off in a way that was difficult to describe. Oh well, I guess they were just having a bad day right? It wasn’t my first experience with lousy fried chicken and probably won’t be my last.
I couldn’t taste anything because of the cold so my sluggish mind wrote it off. As I neared my car, I finally looked down at my half eaten chicken tender. Nothing but stomach-churning raw chicken stared back at me. I instantly felt like evacuating the contents of my stomach on the pavement. It was so gross! I finally found fried chicken that I couldn’t stomach!
I managed to keep it down, then got mad at a poor manager for trying to kill me with their fried chicken. The only thing they were willing to do for me was give me my money back… At least I didn’t have to pay for that bad experience financially!
Some Fried Chicken Facts
- Fried chicken was invented by the Scottish. Other countries would roast or bake their chicken. The Scottish people were the first to fry chicken in fat. According to an Ancestry DNA kit, my DNA is 21% Scottish. My love for fried chicken is literally as deep as my DNA.
- Until the early 1900s, fried chicken was a special occasion meal. It took a long time and a lot of effort to prepare. The dish also required a lot of fat.
- It takes a special type of chicken to work well with frying. Today’s chickens are going to do well with any method that you choose to cook. However, historically only tender young chickens were suitable for fast cooking in a fryer. These chickens were available in the spring and summer. Hence the term, spring chicken.
- Interesting fact. A chicken is the closest living relative to the T-Rex.
- The average American will eat 80 pounds of chicken in a year.
- A chicken’s heart will beat 300 times per minute.
- Chicken was more expensive than beef or veal until the 1960s when massive chicken farms began pumping out the goods.
- 96 chickens are killed every .05 seconds.
- Black chicken is a thing. There is a rare breed of chicken where everything from the feathers, to the meat and to the bones and organs is black. Each one costs around $2,500.
- There is a mushroom, the Laetiporus mushroom, that tastes just like fried chicken. It has been nicknamed the fried chicken mushroom.
- Not sure how I feel about this one. There are more fried chicken restaurants in South Korea than there are McDonald’s restaurants worldwide. I did some digging and the numbers seem to actually be correct there. I have a new love for South Korea!
11 Herbs and Spices
Now back to the history of KFC and Harland Sanders. We had just talked about the early days of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In 1940, Sanders finalized his recipe of 11 herbs and spices. He never revealed the recipe. The only thing he would ever admit was salt and pepper. He would hint over the years that the remaining spices were everyday spices that most people had in their kitchens.
There has been some controversy over the years regarding the top secret recipe. There is a copy of the recipe signed by Colonel Sanders that is locked in a vault in KFC’s headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1999 a couple bought a house that had been previously owned by Sanders. They claimed to have found notes that supposedly contained the secret recipe. They intended to auction them off and KFC was going to file a lawsuit to block them. After reviewing the recipe, they dropped the lawsuit. They claimed that it was no where near the original recipe.
The Chicago Tribune did an experiment on another one of these “found” recipes. They found after a few attempts, and hearty amounts of MSG, they were able to almost replicate the flavor and texture of KFC’s original recipe chicken.
Franchising As A Source of Income
For the longest time, Sanders had a prime location. The local highway ran right by his restaurant and kept him constantly busy. With the interstate rerouting traffic, Sanders had to find new sources of income. He embraced a relatively new concept to the history of KFC, franchising.
In 1950 Harland Sanders was recommissioned a Kentucky Colonel. This was when he started to dress the part. He grew a white goatee and began wearing his signature white suit. The history of KFC really made strides during this period.
He made a contract where restaurant owners would give him 5 cents for every chicken sold. In return, he’d provide them the secret recipe for his 11 herbs and spices. They could then use his likeness to sell the chicken. In 1952 his friend Pete Harman, of Salt Lake City, UT, opened the first KFC franchise. A sign painter that worked for Harman, Don Anderson, coined the name, “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
This was Harman’s way of standing out from the competition. In Utah, something from Kentucky was deemed exotic, and it became very popular. They started selling the iconic bucket meal in 1957. This consisted of a paper bucket that contained 14 pieces of chicken, 5 bread rolls and a pint of gravy. Harman also trademarked the phrase, “Finger lickin’ good.”
Selling Out and Competing Against KFC
By 1963, there were just over 600 franchises operating. In 1964, Sanders was finally convinced to sell his Kentucky Fried Chicken for $2 million and a salary for the rest of his life. His contract also stated that he would be the company’s quality controller and their trademark.
By 1970, the number of locations had just crossed 3,000 nationwide. The group that purchased Kentucky Fried Chicken from Sanders sold the chain to Heublein, a food and drink company, for a cool $285 million. This blew my mind. Just 7 years after selling, the value grew that much.
KFC changed hands a few more times before landing with PepsiCo, their current owner, in 1986. PepsiCo purchased KFC for $850 million.
The Colonel Had High Quality Standards
One story that fascinates me concerns the Colonel’s dislike for what KFC had become. He would throw fits in KFCs that he visited across the country. He even told a reporter once, “It is the worst fried chicken I’ve ever seen.”
KFC had changed the recipes for the chicken, gravy and other menu staples because they were too complicated to be reproduced uniformly across all of their franchised locations. Because of this frustration, he opened up a competing chicken restaurant.
He opened a restaurant called, “Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady.” KFC immediately sued Sanders over this for $120 million. An executive convinced KFC to settle for $1 million. The restaurant is still open today.
It’s interesting. As we discussed last week about Hidden Valley Ranch. The product today scarcely resembles what was originally produced. I wonder just how different KFC is today compared to what Sanders was pumping out when he first started.
Where Is The History of KFC Today?
Colonel Harland Sanders died in 1980. At the time of his passing. KFC had 6,000 outlets spread across 48 different countries, with $2 billion in sales annually.
KFC has struggled in recent years. There is a surge in popularity for competitors such as Chick-fil-A. This has been a major factor in declining sales for KFC since 2015. However, even with declining sales, you can still go into a number of KFC locations and be greeted by pictures of the Colonel on the wall.
There is a strange nostalgia to that. One man had a fried chicken dream that he grew into a major empire. He was a typical rags to riches success story. I’ve eaten my share of KFC. One of my favorite moments was eating one of the legendary double down sandwiches. KFC would get me back in the door in a heartbeat if they brought that back to the menu.
I will confess, when I want fried chicken, KFC is often near the bottom of my list. There are many other local places that have popped up over the years that I enjoy much better. However, they don’t have the deep and rich history of KFC.
Fried chicken is having a moment right now in the country and there are no shortages of quality restaurants serving their spin on fried chicken. However, every once in awhile I still get the craving for the classic 11 herbs and spices. When I do, I grab the car keys and head to my local KFC.
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