The Inspiring Life Story of KFC’s Colonel Sanders
To the public, many of the world’s most successful people are considered to be overnight successes.
However, behind the public eye, many of these people had to go through and overcome lots of challenges in order to achieve the success they are known for.
They have to persevere through hardships and work extra hard for years before hitting it big.
The story of Colonel Sanders is a great example of the kind of life many successful people go through before the money and the fame starts pouring in.
Today, almost everyone all over the world knows Colonel Sanders, the jolly and serene guy who founded popular restaurant chain KFC.
In fact, at one point, Colonel Sanders, in his signature white suit, starched white shirt and black tie, was even ranked as the second most recognizable celebrity in the world.
However, many do not know his inspiring story and how he founded the now global restaurant chain that boasts over 20,000 outlets in 123 countries.
Life for Colonel Sanders started about three miles of Henryville, Indiana, where he was born on September 9, 1890 as Harland David Sanders.
Sanders was born into a fairly modest family. His father was a farmer who worked at his farm at the time Sanders was born.
Five years after Sanders was born, his father died, leaving the young family to fend for itself.
In order to provide for her kids, Sanders mother was forced to take up work at a tomato canning factory in Henryville. She also sewed clothes for other families.
Since his mother spent most of her days at work, little Sanders was left with the responsibility of looking after his younger brother and sisters.
Because of this, he had to learn how to cook at a very young age.
By the time other kids his age were learning how to ride a bicycle, Sanders was already an excellent cook.
In 1902, when Sanders was 12 years old, his mother remarried and the family moved to Greenwood, Indiana, to live with their mother’s new husband.
Sadly, life in the new home was not so good.
Their stepfather was very harsh on them, and after about a year at their step father’s home, Sanders and his younger brother felt that they couldn’t take it anymore.
Both left home, with his younger brother going to live with an aunt in Alabama, while Sanders decided to start fending for himself.
After leaving home, Sanders found a job painting horse carriages.
Shortly after, at the age of 14, he landed a job as a farmhand near Greenwood, Indiana.
The job paid fifteen dollars a month and provided him with a place to sleep and something to eat.
Initially, Sanders balanced his work at the farm and school.
He would get up before dawn, feed the animals, attend school through the day and then come back in the evening to feed the chicken and perform other odd jobs around the farm.
After he completed sixth grade, he dropped out of school and decided to work full-time as a farmhand.
He would later claim that algebra is what drove him off school. Sanders continued working at the farm until the age of fifteen.
With nothing to do after leaving the farm, Sanders, now aged 16, lied about his age and enlisted in the United States Army in 1906.
He was sent to Cuba, where he remained for about a year until he was honorably discharged from the army.
Owing to his short stint in the army, you can bet that he didn’t earn the title of colonel in the army.
The colonel title came much later in life and was honorary title bestowed on him by two Kentucky governors, Governor Ruby Laffoon in 1935 and Governor Lawrence Wetherby in 1950.
Once he left the army, with the help of his uncle, Sanders found a job as a laborer at the railway. He later advanced to the position of a fireman at the railway.
It was while working at the railway that Sanders met a lady by the name Josephine King, and the two got married after a short while.
The two of them would go ahead to have three children together, a son and two daughters. Unfortunately for Sanders, his life as a railway worker would not be long.
Sanders was a hot tempered young man, and after a brawl with a worker, he was fired from this job.
During his days as a railway worker, Sanders was taking correspondence courses in law from LaSalle Extension University and had managed to obtain a law degree.
Having been fired from the railway job, he decided to put his degree to work and started a legal career as a lawyer in the Justice of the Peace Courts in Little Rock, Arkansas.
At the time, you didn’t need to be admitted to the bar in order to practice in the Justice of the Peace Courts. However, his legal career would also be short lived, all because of his hot temper once again.
About three years into his legal career, Sanders got into a fist fight with his own client during a court session. Following the incident, Sanders was arrested and charged with battery.
Although he didn’t get jailed, he was barred from practicing law.
With his legal career abruptly cut short, life got tough for Sanders and he was forced to go back to living with his mom in Henryville, where he found work on the Pennsylvania Railroad as a laborer.
Shortly afterwards, Sanders followed his mother to Jeffersonville, where he found a job as a life insurance salesman.
However, his poor luck continued following him, and he soon dismissed from the job due to insubordination.
After being fired from the life insurance job, Sanders found another sales job and saved enough to start a ferry boat company on the Ohio River.
His ferry boat company became an instant success. He sold some shares in the ferry boat company and became the company’s secretary.
Sanders also took a job as a secretary of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce.
However, he felt that he was not very good at this job, and he quit in under a year.
At about this time, construction of a bridge on the river threatened to put the ferry boat company out of business.
Sanders sold his shares in the company and made $22,000 (about $324,000 in today’s money).
With the cash from the ferry boat company, Sanders decided to set up an acetylene lighting company, with the aim of selling acetylene lamps to farmers.
He was short on luck, however, as the spread of electricity and the light bulb made it impossible for him to make any money with his lamps.
With his acetylene company out of business, Sanders found work as a tire salesman for Michelin in Winchester, Kentucky.
This job also came to an abrupt end when Michelin closed its New Jersey manufacturing plant.
While Sanders was going through all these jobs and rough patches in his career, his family life was not going any better.
Unable to stomach Sanders’ inability to hold down a job, his wife waited until he was on a business trip and then she sold all their belongings and left with the kids.
Sanders managed to convince her to come back, but the two eventually got divorced in 1947.
THE CORBIN GAS STATION AND THE SECRET CHICKEN RECIPE
As Sanders got even older, it increasingly looked like he would never achieve the success that he had spent much of his life chasing.
During his time as a tire salesman, Sanders happened to meet the general manager of Standard Oil of Kentucky by chance.
After the tire salesman job ended, this general manager asked Sanders to run a service station in Nicholasville.
Sanders ran this service station until he was forced to close it down in 1930 due to the Great Depression.
After the Nicholasville service station closed, Sanders was offered the chance of becoming a franchisee of the Shell Oil Company. He was offered a rent-free service station in Corbin, Kentucky.
All he had to do was run the service station and pay a percentage of the sales to Shell Oil Company.
While running the station, Sanders used to cook for his family in a back room, and to make ends meet, he started selling meals to interstate travelers who stopped at the station.
The food he served at the station – which included pan-fried chicken, hot biscuits, ham, okra, string beans, and so on – was quite delicious, and word started spreading around that people could grab a terrific meal at Sander’s place.
As his reputation as a cook spread, demand for his food grew, and he eventually decided to close the service station and set up a restaurant. It was about this time that Sanders was given the title of Colonel by Kentucky governor Ruby Laffoon.
The popularity of Colonel Sanders’ restaurant grew so much that in 1939, Duncan Hines, a food critic, visited the restaurant and listed it in the “Adventures in Good Eating”, his guide to restaurants across the country.
With the restaurant, Colonel Sanders had another encounter with what could be termed as success. However, bad luck still seemed to be trailing him, and on the Thanksgiving of 1939, his restaurant burned down.
Not one to be put down after tasting success, Colonel Sanders rebuilt the restaurant with a seating capacity of a hundred and forty two customers.
At this time, the Colonel was still refining the secret recipe that made his chicken “finger lickin’ good.” This is the same recipe that is still used by KFC restaurants to this day.
While his recipe ensured the great tasting chicken, Colonel Sanders still had a problem.
He was yet to find an efficient and effective way of cooking the chicken.
His restaurant had expanded significantly from when he started, and the old method of pan-frying his chicken was not fast enough. Customers were being forced to wait for over thirty minutes before their orders were ready.
On the other hand, while the French-frying alternative was faster, it resulted in chicken that was crusty, dry, and unevenly done.
This is not something he wanted to serve at his restaurant.
In 1939, he stumbled upon a new cooking method that became a huge breakthrough for him. He started experimenting with a newly invented utensil known as a pressure cooker.
After numerous experiments, he found the right balance of pressure and cooking time that sealed the chicken’s flavor and moisture and produced soft chicken that was neither crusty nor greasy.
The best part was that the chicken would be ready in only eight minutes.
With his secret recipe and his new method of cooking chicken, Colonel Sanders’ restaurant flourished for the next decade, and considered himself set up for life.
However, as he would find out, life wasn’t done messing with him.
Once again, two events happened that jeopardized everything he had worked for in over a decade. In the early fifties, a highway junction that was right in front of his restaurant was moved to another location, significantly cutting the amount of traffic passing near his restaurant.
This was enough put a dent in his business. To make matters worse, plans to build a brand new interstate highway were announced. The new highway would bypass his restaurant by seven miles.
With this announcement, Colonel Sanders knew that his restaurant would not survive. He decided to salvage what he could by auctioning off the restaurant.
Unfortunately, buyers knew the business was about to die, and the Colonel ended selling the restaurant at a considerable loss.
After tasting a moderate level of success for about a decade, the Colonel was back at square one.
With no source of income, he started surviving off what he had salvaged from the restaurant, his savings and a monthly social security check of $105.
THE BIRTH OF KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN
As Colonel Sanders pondered on what to do now that his restaurant was no more, he remembered that he had taught his friend Pete Harman how to fry chicken using his process and allowed Harman to sell these chicken in his restaurant.
Harman’s restaurant had attracted more customers after he started serving the Colonel’s chicken, and some other restaurant owners had reached out to Colonel Sanders asking him to allow them to serve his chicken in their restaurants.
By 1956, the Colonel had made informal franchise arrangements with about 8 restaurant owners.
Under the agreements, the restaurant owners paid the Colonel five cents for every chicken sold if it was cooked using his process.
Now that his restaurant business was no more, Colonel Sanders resolved to pursue the franchise business more earnestly.
In 1956, at the sixty six, the Colonel put his secret seasoning and his pressure cookers into his car and hit the road looking for restaurants to buy into his franchise.
The Colonel was very picky when choosing restaurants he would allow to sell his chicken.
Once he came across a restaurant that he approved of, he would go in, talk to the owner and convince him to allow him (the Colonel) to cook his special chicken for the restaurant employees.
If the employees loved the chicken, the Colonel would then convince the restaurant owner to allow him to cook the chicken for the restaurant’s clients.
If the customers loved the chicken, the Colonel would then get into franchise negotiations with the restaurant owner.
As you might have guessed, the Colonel’s approach was a very slow and expensive way of getting people to buy into his franchise.
To reduce his costs as he canvased the country looking for people to buy into his idea, Colonel Sanders often slept inside his car. At some point, he had to depend on free meals from his friends to keep him going.
This was a tough time for Colonel Sanders, and what kept him going was the hope that he would land a prestige franchise.
While he had a hard time selling people onto his idea, his hard work finally paid off.
By 1964, Colonel Sanders had managed to build a company worth millions of dollars and with over 600 outlets in the United States and Canada.
What makes this achievement even more impressive is the fact that he was running a one man operation. He didn’t have salesmen promoting his franchise. He did it all alone.
However, as his franchise got popular, he got to a point where those interested in becoming franchisees started reaching out and coming to him, rather than him traveling all over the country trying to convince more people to join his franchise.
By this time, Kentucky Fried Chicken still didn’t have its own signature outlets. Instead, it was a bunch of different outlets that sold the KFC chicken.
Having grown so big, it was inevitable that Kentucky Fried Chicken would attract the attention of predators.
When he was 74, a young lawyer from Kentucky named John Y. Brown, Jr. and his millionaire patron Jack Massey approached Colonel Sanders with the intention to buy his company.
Having put so much work into building the company, the Colonel was initially reluctant about selling his company.
Brown and Massey talked to the Colonel for weeks, trying to convince him to sell the company.
The two promised that they would maintain the highest degree of quality control for the franchise and that they would never change the Colonel’s recipe.
Still, selling the company it had taken him so long to build was not an easy decision for Colonel Sanders.
With Brown and Massey in tow, the Colonel traveled all over the country, seeking the advice of his family members, business associates and franchisees of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Finally, the Colonel realized that the company was growing too huge for him to control alone, and he eventually agreed to sell the company in 1964 for an offer of $2 million (about $15.3 million in today’s money), though he retained ownership of the company’s assets in Canada.
Still, it appears like the Colonel wasn’t truly happy with the deal, considering that he was letting go of the most important thing in his life.
Despite selling the company, the Colonel’s role in the company did not end there. The new owners of KFC believed that the Colonel’s face was one of the greatest assets to the KFC brand.
They retained him as a brand ambassador and embarked on a huge publicity campaign that saw the Colonel conduct press interviews, appear on television and visit various KFC outlets as the company spokesman.
For his position as company spokesman and brand ambassador of KFC, the Colonel was given a lifetime salary of $40,000 per year.
Even today, the Colonel’s face and his signature white suit and bowtie remain a central part of KFC branding.
In 1971, 7 years after buying KFC, Brown sold the food chain to Heublein Inc. The new owners moved the company headquarters to Tennessee and also changed the company’s business model.
Instead of the Colonel’s model of charging a nickel per chicken, the company started charging a franchise fee as well as a percentage of all sales made by KFC outlets.
The Colonel was not contented with the direction the company was taking, and he started voicing his concerns over what KFC had become.
His vocal fight against the new KFC and the fact that he opened a new restaurant even led to a legal battle between KFC and the colonel.
Still, the Colonel continued working for KFC and touring the country as the company’s brand ambassador.
In the last two decades of his life, he never appeared in public wearing anything other than his signature white suit.
Finally, on 16th December 1980, the Colonel passed away from leukemia at the ripe age of 90.
The story of Colonel Sanders is a great inspiration, and whenever you feel overwhelmed by all the challenges life throws at you, you should remember the story of this great man.
He was sacked from multiple jobs, his wife left him, he messed up his legal career due to uncontrolled anger and aggression, his first restaurant burnt down, his new booming restaurant was driven out of business by the construction of a new bypass, but this man never gave up.
At the age of 65, when many people would be hanging their boots, he set out and built what has become one of the largest food chains globally.