Colonel Sanders: The Original Celebrity Chef

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Watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

I’m sure many of you know who Colonel Sanders is and that he founded Kentucky Fried Chicken, but in this video you’ll learn that his road to success was an interesting and unusual one, involving a shootout with a competitor and even becoming an amateur midwife in his early days.

His autobiography along with some of his cooking recipes was written in 1966 but the manuscript was only discovered in 2011 and KFC published it for free shortly after.

Harland Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890. He had a variety of jobs before he became hugely successful building his million dollar business with his food. Sanders’ relationship with food started at a very young age. His father died when he was five and as a result, his mother went out to work. That left Sanders to cook for his younger brother and sister, his speciality was light bread, kneading and baking the loaf himself.

Sanders was a big, strong country boy and got his first job aged 10, clearing ground in a woods for a local farmer with an axe and a saw. He didn’t do as much work as he should have and was fired after a month. His mother lambasted him with a lecture saying the only way he could keep a job was by giving his best. Sanders was remorseful and vowed from that point on to never avoid another day of work in his life.

He worked for another farmer the rest of that year, ploughing fields, milking cows and feeding horses. The farmer said that Sanders was the best hand he’d ever had. It was here that Sanders learned to love work, taking great pleasure in it once he got used to the long hours. He continued to work on a farm whilst going to school, working before and after school each day. He dropped out of school at 13 years of age, something he doesn’t advise others to do now times have changed; claiming hard work does not guarantee success with no education at all.

He worked various jobs including painting horse carriages, more farming and tram conducting. Then he volunteered for the army. Despite being only 15 at the time he looked older than he was and was accepted. He was sent to Cuba for the duration of his army employment, which was just under six months.

On his return from Cuba, he took a job as a blacksmith’s helper on the railroad in Alabama for a couple of months. He then moved onto clearing the ash pans of the locomotive engines on their run and eventually became a fireman, shovelling the coal into the firebox, fuelling the train engine.

Around this time, he got married and had his first child. His wife did not cook so he spent time teaching her, using instructions his mother had taught him as well as trying out recipes he’d memorised, tweaked and perfected.

Whilst working on the railroad, Sanders was studying law at night and eventually got to practise law, becoming a lawyer and representing train crash victims. After three years of studying and practising law he decided being a lawyer wasn’t for him. He briefly returned to working on the railroad, before taking a job selling life insurance. His hard work ethic led to him becoming one of the greatest insurance sellers in the office and he was promoted to be in charge of other staff.

He then started a transportation company running a steamboat as a ferry from Jeffersonville to Louisville which he ran successfully, eventually making himself approximately $22,000 in the process. He used this money to start manufacturing farm lighting. A combination of stiff competition and far too rapid expansion led to Sanders losing everything he put into this business and going broke.

Soon, Sanders was offered the opportunity to run a petrol station, filling up the cars tanks with fuel. However, he ran the station offering extremely good service, from windscreen wiping to pumping up tires, all free of charge. After only a month in charge, he was selling three times more fuel than anyone else had previously at that station. It proved to him that hard work works, in this case with a helpful and personal service.

It was while in charge of a petrol station that Sanders was made aware of a local rival painting over his advertising signs. It was a particularly rough neighbourhood and he travelled over to catch the man in the act, driving down with two Shell employees (who he was meeting with at the time) with their guns loaded. Unfortunately, the rival saw them coming and killed one of the Shell employees, shooting him with his pistol. Sanders returned fire and shot the man in the shoulder. The rival was later arrested and convicted of murder.

During his time working in petrol stations, the Great Depression hit America. Sanders had been offered a job with Shell Oil Company running another station in Kentucky and during this time, he got involved with delivering babies. Many families were so broke due to the depression that husbands could not even afford a doctor to deliver their baby when their wives were pregnant. Sanders delivered any babies he could and where there were complications tried to get hold of a doctor to help out. One couple were so grateful, they named their child Harland.

It was at the Shell Company’s station that Sanders first got into the restaurant business and utilised his cooking knowledge. He opened a cafe as part of his station. He called it a cafe rather than a restaurant as it had less letters and he could paint them bigger on the sides of nearby barns to advertise.

He was soon tinkering with chicken and his special seasoning. His restaurant got a reputation far and wide for serving good quality, delicious food. His menu was small but good, allowing him to focus on the quality of each item he sold.

In 1935, Sanders was commissioned as a Colonel by the governor of Kentucky. It is the highest honour the state can bestow on somebody, and is given as recognition for noteworthy accomplishment or outstanding service to the community. This is the origin of how he later became known as “The Colonel”.

He also got into the motel business by building one in Kentucky with the help of a loan shark. He agreed to borrow over $5,000 but would pay the money back to him with a third of the profit from the hotel rooms he sold. The loan shark made so much money from that deal that he offered to build Sanders a second motel in North Carolina.

The Second World War brought with it rationing and tourism decreased dramatically. He sold his second motel and was left with his original service station, cafe and motel. Later, when surveyors moved the highway away from his original setup, he ended up selling his original business too. It was 1956 and he was practically back to square one at 65 years old.

He decided after this he needed to head in a new direction so focused on franchising his own special fried chicken. He spoke to many small restaurant operators, travelling around the country, often sleeping in the back of his car, and taught them how to fry his chicken. The only secret was the seasoning, made up of 11 herbs and spices, which he packaged and shipped to protect his franchises. He made 5 cents for each chicken dish they sold.

People kept applying for franchises and the operation grew and grew, to a point where it was difficult to keep up. At his age he was still travelling over 200,000 miles a year to potential franchises and grand openings and many business decisions had to be held up until he returned.

In 1964, Sanders sold his business for $2 million. Kentucky Fried Chicken was the largest seller of chicken in the world, selling $56 million worth. He wanted somebody to carry on his business and really do something with it. He’d handed over the operational side but still worked for the company in promotion, publicity and as an advisor. Over the next two years he appeared on eleven of the best national TV shows in the country, gaining valuable exposure for the business.

Sanders was moderately successful in his earlier life but made millions after he turned 65. He used his experience and knowledge he’d gained throughout his life but his secret was that he was not scared of “hard, back-cracking” work.