I fondly remember Sunday afternoons when I was growing up in Kentucky. My grandparents would take me to my favorite restaurant, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Being from Kentucky ourselves, we were so proud of the restaurant, and its founder, Colonel Harland Sanders. Colonel Sanders was “one of us” — a Kentuckian. He made his mark introducing Southern fried chicken to the world, bringing a part of our home and our culture to places we’d only dreamed about. You could travel almost anywhere and find a “KFC,” with a recipe (Colonel Sanders’s famous 11 herbs and spices) born right here, just like we were.
Like me, Sanders came from nothing — some would say “nowhere” — and he went on to live the American dream. And like me, Sanders was named a “Kentucky Colonel” by the governor of Kentucky.
Today, KFC is an internationally recognized brand, with more than 18,000 restaurants in 118 countries. But the start of the Colonel’s story reveals a humble beginning that I and a lot of Kentuckians identify with.
Harland Sanders was born into poverty and grew up without a father. Sanders’s father died when he was 5 years old, and throughout his youth he worked hard. By age 18 he’d worked as a farmhand, a painter, a streetcar conductor, a soldier in the Army, and in various capacities for the railroad.
In fact, Sanders worked numerous jobs with mixed success until he was 65 years old. At that time, he set out writing his will, convinced he hadn’t made anything of himself. But he realized he did one thing well — he knew how to cook.
Sanders learned how to cook when he was seven years old, and by the time he was 40 he owned a small filling station on US Route 25 in Corbin, KY. There he set aside a small room as an eating area and served hungry travelers home-cooked meals. This is where he developed what he called his “secret recipe” of 11 herbs and spices and a method of pressure-frying chicken that he believed tasted better than deep fried. But his success was to be short-lived.
In the 1950s, Interstate 75 was planned and would circumvent Corbin, drying up business for the 65-year-old Colonel. This led to the fateful day when he sat alone under a tree, destitute, and contemplating his life’s accomplishments. It has been said he was suicidal, and was writing his will before taking his own life. But when he looked back at what he’d done, he realized he had one thing that might still be of worth: his Southern fried chicken recipe.
Instead of ending his life, Sanders traveled the country franchising his chicken recipe to other restaurant owners. By 1963, he had established over 600 franchisees, and become the largest franchise restaurant operation in the United States. Along the way, he named his creation Kentucky Fried Chicken, popularized the bucket, and trained a generation of franchise owners like Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s.
Today, KFC is recognized all over the world as a symbol of quality and American innovation. When I flew to New Zealand, I stopped at the KFC by the airport and gave a speech there. A Kentuckian, speaking about Kentucky, standing at one of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants farthest away from home. The crowd loved it — and so did I.
KFC is still my favorite restaurant. And the story of Colonel Sanders is proof that great ideas can come from anywhere in the country, not just the coasts, and that American Innovation can come from even the humblest of beginnings.
The next time you’re hankering for a taste of home, try a taste of mine with a bucket of chicken from KFC.