Kfc History Essays Meme
Have you heard the life story of Colonel Sanders? It’s taken root in the muddy internet backwater where only inspirational anecdotes tend to flourish.
In the past couple weeks, variations on the tale have materialized in an Osaka Craigslist posting, a YouTube clip designed like one of those Facebook videos you watch without sound while you’re on the toilet, and the Facebook page of former candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, Dr. Ben Carson. I came to it through LinkedIn, my personal junction with the web’s dregs.
"At age 5 his Father died," begins the story. "At age 16 he quit school. At age 17 he had already lost four jobs. At age 18 he got married. He joined the army and washed out there. At age 20 his wife left him and took their baby. He became a cook in a small cafe and convinced his wife to return home. At age 65 he retired. He felt like a failure & decided to commit suicide. He sat writing his will, but instead, he wrote what he would have accomplished with his life & thought about how good of a cook he was. So he borrowed $87 fried up some chicken using his recipe, went door to door to sell. At age 88 Colonel Sanders, founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) Empire was a billionaire."
Beneath the LinkedIn item is a discolored photo of a smiling Colonel Sanders holding a bucket of chicken, his portrait emblazoned onto its red and white cardboard. And beneath the image are comments. "Sometimes you have to fail to figure out what works," responds one commenter. Says another, "Inspirational."
Each retelling differs, tweaked to appeal to a specific motivation-hungry audience. A longer version on Facebook, for instance, includes more provocative details like "At age 20 his wife left him and took their baby daughter [...] He failed in an attempt to kidnap his own daughter, and eventually he convinced his wife to return home." and "On the 1st day of retirement he received a cheque from the Government for $105. He felt that the Government was saying that he couldn’t provide for himself."
What the retellings share is an indifference to the truth, a puzzling eagernesses to exchange unbelievable facts for mundane and simplified melodramatic plot. For example, much of the text appears to be a streamlined version of a story about Colonel Sander’s plot to kidnap his daughter, found on a Jehovahs-witness.com, and attributed to a Los Angeles Times syndicated article — that oddly doesn’t appear in the paper’s online archive.
Many other avenues can be taken to learn the extravagant truth of the Colonel’s life. In 1970, the New Yorker profiled Colonel Sanders — or as author William Whitworth describes him, "a perfectionist in an imperfect world" — still alive and approaching eighty. Whitworth recounts how Sanders became a cook as a child in his mother’s regular absence, then shuffled between the life of a farmer, streetcar conductor, soldier, railroad fireman, lawyer, insurance salesman, steamboat operator, secretary, lighting manufacturer, and a number of other jobs, including hotel owner and restaurateur. Sanders didn’t lose jobs, it would appear, so much as he bored of them.
Sanders first built an identity on fried chicken while running a service station with his mistress, who following his divorce would become his second wife — a point made in one of Sanders’ autobiographies. And depending on who you believe, he received his honorary Colonel title sometime in the 1930s or 1950s from the Kentucky governor.
Sanders didn’t retire at the age of 65. That’s when he sold his first restaurant, and began developing the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in earnest. Nearly 60-years-old, he would spend days at a restaurant, peddling his chicken technique, cooking for customers, and often sleeping in the back of his car. At 73, he sold KFC for $2 million. He was not a billionaire, but he lived in comfort for the remainder of his years.
The New Yorker piece, and much writing of the time on Sanders, never mentions a kidnapping plot. Though a variation of the event appears, oddly, in the Colonel’s 1974 autobiography, Life as I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good. According to a Thought Catalog synopsis of the book, Colonel Sanders was a servant of God, with a nasty mouth and a willingness to be pummel a man with a chair. He claimed the power of prayer healed his colon polyp. All of which is to say, Sanders' life begs to be described, like a Mark Twain character, with many pauses for comic detail — a leisurely style that doesn't mesh with an optimized social media post.
Perhaps what’s most disappointing about the boring, false inspirational life anecdotes, which aren't limited to this chef, is how readily available the real story often is. Between the profiles, biographies, and Sander’s own writing, his life story is quite literally an open book. With one exception, that is.
In January 1968, the Colonel invited then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to celebrate his 80th birthday "I do believe us [old] folks can show those young people what celebratin’s [sic] all about." Sanders had previously written to J. Edgar Hoover in 1960 to compliment his handling of the "San Francisco riots," presumably the "Black Friday" protests, a demonstration against the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. He had expressed confidence the work of Hoover, who at this point was facing pushback from younger politicians, including presidential nominee Richard Nixon.
Included in FBI’s file is background on the fast food mogul: "Colonel Harland F. Sanders has not been the subject of an FBI investigation," begins the report. The sentence is followed by two paragraphs of text redacted by long strips of black ink.
That’s the story worth sharing.
The real Col. Sanders, who died on this day in 1980 at the age of 90, was an entrepreneur who didn't become a professional chef until he was 40, didn't franchise Kentucky Fried Chicken until he was 62, and didn't become a legend in the industry until after he sold his company at 75.
According to a 1970 New Yorker profile by William Whitworth, as well as biographies from Bio and the University of Houston, here are the highlights of the Colonel's remarkable rise to success.
Harland Sanders was born in 1890 and grew up on a farm in Indiana. When he was 6 years old, Sanders' father died, leaving him to take care of his younger brother and sister while his mom spent long days working. One of these responsibilities was feeding his siblings, and by age 7 he was already a decent cook, according to the New Yorker.
His mom remarried when he was 12. Because his new stepfather didn't like the boys around, Sanders' brother was sent to live with an aunt while he was sent to work on a farm about 80 miles away.
Sanders soon realized he would rather work all day than go to school, so he dropped out in the seventh grade.
In addition to a stint in Cuba with the Army, Sanders spent the first half of his life working a series of odd jobs, including stoking the steam engines of trains throughout the South, selling insurance, selling tires, making lighting systems, and operating a ferry boat.
He acquired a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, in 1930 and began serving classic Southern dishes to travelers. The location became known for its food, and Sanders eventually got rid of the service station's gas pump and converted the location to a full-fledged restaurant.
His breakthrough came in 1939 when he found that frying his chicken and its signature "11 herbs and spices" in a new device, a pressure cooker (different from the ones used today), resulted in the ideal consistency he had been looking for.
Sanders' restaurant enjoyed great popularity over the next decade, and in 1950 the governor of Kentucky named him colonel, the highest title of honor the state can give. Sanders began dressing the part, adopting the white suit and Kentucky colonel tie that would help make him a pop-culture icon.
In 1952, he made a deal with his restaurateur friend, Pete Harman, to sell his chicken dish as "Kentucky Fried Chicken" in exchange for a 4-cent royalty on every piece sold. After it became a top-selling item, Sanders made the same deal with several other local restaurants.
Things were going great, but when a new interstate bypassed Sanders' restaurant, it spelled doom.
He sold the location at a loss in 1956, leaving his $105 monthly Social Security check as his only income. Sanders then decided that he was not going to settle for a quiet retirement.
Since he'd closed his restaurant, the Colonel decided to dedicate himself fully to the franchising side project he'd started four years earlier.
He hit the road with his wife, the car packed with a couple pressure cookers, flour, and spice blends. He would enter a restaurant, offer to cook his chicken, and then make a deal if the owner liked what they tasted.
By 1963, Sanders was fielding franchise requests without having to put in the legwork, and had more than 600 restaurants across the US and Canada selling Kentucky Fried Chicken. That October, he was approached by John Y. Brown, Jr., "an aggressive young lawyer" as the New Yorker puts it, and a venture capitalist named Jack C. Massey who wanted to buy the franchise rights.
Sanders was initially reluctant, but after weeks of persuasion, he agreed to sell his rights for $2 million ($15.1 million in 2015 dollars) in January 1965, and the deal went through in March.
Under the contract, the company Kentucky Fried Chicken would establish its own restaurants around the world and would not compromise the chicken recipe. Sanders was to have a lifetime salary of $40,000 (later upped to $75,000), a seat on the board, majority ownership of KFC's Canadian franchises, and would serve as the company's brand ambassador.
Sanders wasn't happy to let go of his baby, but at 75, he decided that it would be best to see his company continue to grow beyond his capacity.
The New Yorker profile noted that some of his friends believed Sanders was shorted on the deal, but it also shows that Sanders turned down stock in the company and did not negotiate for a higher price.
It seems Sanders' pursuit was never really about becoming rich, but rather about becoming renowned for his food. That's why he constantly grumbled and swore about the more profitable but lower quality gravy that the corporate KFC began producing.
"If you were a franchisee turning out perfect gravy but making very little money for the company and I was a franchisee making lots of money for the company but serving gravy that was merely excellent, the Colonel would think that you were great and I was a bum," a KFC executive told the New Yorker. "With the Colonel, it isn't money that counts, it's artistic talent."
Sanders spent the latter years of his life giving interviews on talk shows and appearing in commercials, like this one from 1969:
The University of Houston, which honors Sanders in its Hospitality Industry Hall of Fame, says that up until his death in 1980, the Colonel traveled 250,000 miles each year visiting KFC locations and promoting the brand in the media.
Brown, who sold his stake in KFC in 1971 for $284 million, became governor of Kentucky in 1979. When Sanders died the next year, Brown said Sanders was "a real legend" and "the spirit of the American dream," the New York Times reported.
Sanders may have lacked the motivation to become as wealthy as he could have been, but he's now known in 115 countries for his favorite fried chicken recipe, which is more than he ever could have hoped for when he hit the road at age 65 with a car full of cooking supplies.