When KFC Was Kentucky Fried Chicken & The Colonel Was Sanders

Culture | October 14, 2018

Left: A 1968 Kentucky Fried Chicken advertisement proclaims 'Colonel Sanders is a woman's best friend.' Right: George Hamilton portrays the Colonel touting 'extra crispy' chicken. Sources: Tumblr; YouTube

You might have grown up on Kentucky Fried Chicken -- but you can't get it now. In fact, the name "Kentucky Fried Chicken" died in 1991, when the chain changed its name to KFC to try to avoid the negative connotations of "fried." Colonel Harland Sanders is no longer with us either, although the company has cleverly used celebrity wannabe Colonels in recent years, including Darrell Hammond, Norm MacDonald, and Reba McEntire.

Names change, and nobody lives forever -- not even Colonel Sanders. Whether you continue to call it Kentucky Fried Chicken or get on board with KFC, it's still damn good eating, and a 20th-century American success story that stretches back even further.

The Colonel Was A Jack Of All Trades

Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, is shown here as he celebrates his 88th birthday. (Getty Images)

The late Colonel, Harland David Sanders, who remains the face of the brand, was born in 1890 and, strangely, died in 1980. At the age of 90 years old, he was still very active up until a month before his death. He was not really a colonel – that was just a title given to him as an honorarium. Before getting into the chicken business, he had held several other jobs such as insurance salesman, filling station attendant, and a steam engine stoker. As a young child of ten years old, he started working as a farmhand, and by age thirteen, he dropped out of school while he was still in the seventh grade. As a school dropout, he did pretty well for himself.

Early Success, And The Infamous 'Shootout'

First Restaurant of Colonel Sanders Fried Chicken

His first experience with a chicken restaurant was during the Great Depression when he started selling fried chicken from a roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky. He had taught himself to cook at the age of five, when he was put in charge of cooking and taking care of his siblings after his father died and his mother had to go to work. When Shell Oil Company offered him a service station rent-free in exchange for a percentage, he took it and began serving and selling chicken, country ham, and steak dinners, to the customers in the nearby area. Not long afterward, he opened up an actual restaurant. 

Competition between Sanders' restaurant and one owned by Matt Stewart was intense -- and at one point Stewart painted over a sign for Sanders' place, redirecting traffic to his own. Sanders painted the sign back and threatened to "blow [Stewart's] goddamn head off." When Stewart again painted over Sanders' sign, a shootout ensued, and Stewart fatally shot one of Sanders' managers. Stewart went to jail for murder -- an unconventional and unfortunate way of eliminating the competition, for sure.  

In November of 1939, Sanders' restaurant and motel were destroyed by fire, which he then rebuilt as a motel with a restaurant that seated 140.

The 'Secret' Recipe

Finger-Lickin' Good

Sanders' method of frying was done in a pressure fryer, with a “secret” recipe, that has been the focus of the many commercials that have been done, over the years, of the competition trying to find out what his secret was. Once he began focusing on franchising, the Kentucky Fried Chicken craze spread throughout the country, the first one being opened in Utah in 1952. Eventually, the slogan came out that became his trademark “It’s finger-lickin’ good.”  

Kentucky Fried Chicken Expands

Jerry Lewis and the Colonel in a 1967 promotional shoot that became a print advertisement, with the caption ''The Big Mouth' Loves Kentucky Fried Chicken.' Source: Pinterest

The history of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the chain we all know and love, starts in 1952 and has continued right up through to his death in 1980. KFC had become so popular that by 1964, the colonel was overwhelmed, and at the age of 73, he sold the business to investors for $2 million, although he retained control of the operation in Canada and some of the franchise rights in a few of the states. In 1952, he sold the first franchise of his “recipe” to Pete Harmon, which turned out to very profitable in the very first year, with sales tripling as a result of the fried chicken. In 1959, after having to close his North Corbin restaurant, due to reduced customer traffic because of a new interstate, he was left with only his savings and monthly social security check. Making a decision to promote his recipe, he started visiting restaurants, even having to sleep in his car at times, in order to cook his chicken for them as a test to determine if it was worth a franchise to them. It was not easy but it finally paid off for him. 

Don Anderson, a sign painter, came up with the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Other restaurant owners began to purchase franchises from the Colonel. Soon potential clients were visiting him instead and it became very successful with KFC becoming internationally known by the 1960s. In the latter years of his life, he grew displeased with the way the chain was conducting the business, as he would make surprise visits to some of the restaurants and was appalled at the taste of the food. He believed that they were sacrificing quality to cut costs.

Kentucky Frie-- Er, KFC Today

Original flavored KFC Fried Chicken

Despite the Colonel’s concerns, we still enjoy the taste of KFC today. Doesn’t that chicken in the above picture just make you want to go right now to your nearest KFC and pick up a bucket of chicken? There is no other fried chicken franchise that makes it the way KFC does. It has a unique flavor that is “finger-lickin’ good” which is why so many have tried to pull the “secret” recipe out of the colonel. The colonel has left us a legacy with KFC restaurants in 48 countries around the world estimating annual sales of $5.9 million today.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Food In the 1960s | KFC | The 1960s

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Terry Claypoole


Terry is a lover of the beach, history, politics and has a passion for social media and technology. In her spare time, you can find her at the beach (of course) enjoying the sand and sun and listening to music from the groovy era.