Amazing story of Colonel Sanders – the KFC founder

Amazing story of Colonel Sanders – the KFC founder
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Failed? Do not despair! Reconsider what you have, what you can do and what you really want to do. You are never too young or too old to start all over again! Remember, there are only two ways to success: out of inspiration or out of desperation.

Rise above your depression! Go to any KFC and on everything you order there, you will see a smiling face of an elderly gentleman in the white suit, white goatee and black string tie, and think of the story behind it.

Harland David Sanders was born on a farm in Henryville, Indiana on September 9, 1890. At the age of six the life of the little kid was turned upside down when his father, a butcher, died. His mother, a homemaker, was left alone to look after three children. To survive, she had to take a job peeling tomatoes in a canning factory during the day and sewing at home during the night. Sanders had to take care of his younger brother and sister, learning how to cook so he could feed them while their mother was working. When he was ten, he got his first job in a nearby farm for $2 a month. Because they were so poor, Sanders had to quit school in seventh grade in order to work full time to support his family.

His mother, desperate to improve the financial situation married a produce farmer, and the family moved to Indianapolis when Sanders was 12. Young Sanders often fought with his stepfather and within a year, his mother sent him back to Clark County, Indiana, where he worked on a farm for three years earning $15 a month, plus room and board. Later, he found a job as a streetcar conductor in New Albany. He soon quit that position to enlist in the U.S. Army, where he spent about a year as a soldier stationed in Cuba. When he was discharged, Harland Sanders married Josephine King. The couple had three children. During the early years of their marriage, Sanders and his family moved to Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and finally coming back to Indiana. (They divorced in 1947.)

It took a long time for Harland Sanders to discover himself, to find an occupation which he would love. Till his 40 he worked far too many jobs: sold insurance in Indiana – quit; operated his own steamboat ferry company on the Ohio River between Jeffersonville and Louisville, Kentucky – failed; took a job as secretary of the Columbus chamber of commerce – resigned. While working here, he met an inventor who had found how to operate natural gas lamps on a gas derived from carbide; he decided to buy the patent rights and launched a producing company. But, how a gas lamp could compete with the electrical bulb?! The product was obsolete and his venture quickly fell short. After, he was a railroad man at the Illinois Central Railroad – lost his job. However, during that time, he earned a Law degree by correspondence from Southern University. A local Judge allowed him to use his Law Library and lawyers helped him by explaining Law terminology. From the year 1915 to the early 1920’s, Sanders was practicing Law with some success working in the Justice of the Peace courts in Arkansas, but Sanders ruined his legal career getting into a fight with a client in the courtroom – what a bad temper – and failure came again.

The great depression began and any employment was hard to find. Given that Sanders never had an easy time working for someone else, he finally decided to go into business for himself. At forty, he was going to start something new.

In 1929, Sanders moved to Corbin, Kentucky, a small town at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. In 1930, he opened a gas station along a busy highway 25. Often, hungry travelers asked Sanders where they could get something to eat nearby, and that is why he started serving his customers on his own dining table in his living quarters. The food was simple but tasty: pan fried chicken, ham, vegetables, and biscuits. Remember, it was the Great Depression, and Sanders’ relatives and friends were very skeptic about the idea of an eatery but Colonel proved his doubters wrong by showing that people would still eat out if it was convenient and inexpensive for them. Soon after, more people started coming just for the food and by 1937, Sanders moved across the street to a motel and restaurant where he could seat 142 customers. To better manage the business, Harland finished an eight-week course from Cornell University. The restaurant became known for its homey Southern cooking; especially pan fried chicken. Over the next 9 years, he perfected his famous, and very secret, fried chicken recipe. He often told of his search for the right recipe. It was while experimenting in his Corbin kitchen, that Sanders found his famous and closely guarded combination of eleven herbs and spices which he claimed “stand on everybody’s shelf.”

As the popularity of his fried chicken grew, his fame began to spread across the state of Kentucky. Sanders’ fried chicken impressed the Governor Ruby Laffoon so much, that in 1935 he made Harland Sanders an honorary Kentucky colonel for his contribution to state cuisine.

In 1937, Sanders tried to start a restaurant chain in Kentucky, but his attempt failed. Two years later, he opened another motel and restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, but it failed too. For a while he put his plans for expansion on hold, deciding instead to focus on perfecting his chicken recipe. He wanted to find a way to cook chicken faster, because customers would not wait 45 minutes for a batch to be fried up in an iron pan. By that time, a new product called “pressure cooker” appeared on the market. Sanders used the pressure cooker to prepare chicken in nine minutes. He found that chicken cooked in this manner turned out to be juicy and flavorful. The goal was achieved.

In 1939, fire destroyed the restaurant and motel, which Sanders soon after rebuilt. In 1949, Sanders married Claudia Ledington, a woman who worked in his restaurant. Business continued to boom, but one day The Colonel got the news of the plans for a new highway which was going to be constructed…a route which no longer would directly pass his restaurant. Harland saw his successful business dying. Forced to sell his property to pay off his debts, he was left almost broke having nothing but a social security check of $105 a month. He was 66. He could have retired and survived on what he had. Instead, with nothing to lose, Sanders took his spices and the pressure cooker and started traveling throughout the United States in his 1946 Ford from restaurant to restaurant, demonstrating his unique recipe and process to restaurant owners, offering them a deal: for every chicken sold with Sanders’ secret recipe, he would get five cents of the sale. People close to him, tried to persuade Harland to forget about the venture, but Colonel Sanders strongly believed in his chicken idea, was determined, or stubborn, and wanted to proof to him and the others that he was not a loser. He refused to give up.

In his autobiography, Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good (published in 1974), Sanders wrote that “One of our biggest problems getting started was money.” His pension merely paid for his gas and the travel needed to get the franchises started. “Lots of nights I would sleep in the back of my car so I could have enough money to buy cookers the next day if someone took a franchise,” he said.

Sanders spent two years driving across the country trying to sell his product. History says that he was rejected 1008 times! The restaurant owners kicked him out and openly laughed at him. Only the prospect number 1009 gave him his first “yes.” After two years of making daily sales Sanders had signed up a total of five restaurants. He was back on track.

How much do you need to start your business? In order to get his business going, The Colonel had a social security cheque, a car, a garage and his wife. About whom he said. “She was my packing girl, my warehouse supervisor, my delivery person – you name it.” They mixed the spices by hand on a specially cleaned concrete floor on the back porch. Once Sanders found a franchisee for his chicken, his wife stayed behind to take the orders. “She’d fill the day’s orders in little paper sacks with cellophane linings and package them for shipment. Then she had to put them on a midnight train.”

Colonel Sanders always kept a mystique surrounding his recipe. In the early days, he hired two different suppliers to mix up different batches of spices. Subsequently, he combined them together into his special blend and mailed the finished product to his franchisees. He refused to tell other restaurateurs what exactly was in his recipe. As a result, they became even more intrigued by the taste. As the franchise expanded, Sanders continued to guard his secret recipe carefully. After all, is there anyone who does not love a good secret and who is not eager to uncover the truth? It was really great marketing strategy! Even today, Sanders’ original KFC recipe remains locked up in a safe in Kentucky, which only two or three company highest executives have access to.

By 1964, Colonel Sanders had more than 600 franchises in the United States and Canada. He sold his operation to a group of investors for $2 million, as well as a lifetime annual salary of $40,000. While it was a decision he would later regret, Colonel Sanders remained an integral part of the company, serving as its spokesperson, traveling about 250,000 miles a year visiting KFC restaurants around the world, until he died of leukemia at the age of 90.

This is the end of the story of Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, the “never-give-up” man.

 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”

Keep on asking! Keep on seeking! Keep on knocking!  And success will come!


  • Life As I Have Known It Has Been “Finger Lickin’ Good”. Colonel Harland Sanders. 1974 Creation House Publishers, Carol Stream, Illinois.
  • Secret Recipe: Why KFC Is Still Cookin’ After 50 Years. Robert Darden. 2002 by Pete Harmon, Tapestry Press, Irving, Texas
  • “Colonel Harland Sanders: From Corbin to the World”. 1980 by KFC Corporation, reprinted from BUCKET, Volume 22, Number 1, 1980.
  • Dictionary of American Biography Supplement 10, 1976-1980.
  • The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast Food Empire. Pearce, John, Doubleday, 1982.
  • Eleven Herbs and a Spicy Daughter: Col.Sanders’ Secret of Success. Margaret Sanders Starr Publishing Co., 1994.
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