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Author’s Note: This article is not advocating the eating of chicken nor glorifying fast-food menus. It realizes the very real dangers of deep-fried foods along with the many imperfections of the subject Colonel Harland Sanders; yet, the author still believes there is something to be learned in the “Finger-licking-good” story of a persevering man, his secret recipe, and an honest tithe.
Born to Wilbur and Margaret Ann Sanders, devout members of the Advent Christian Church (which was founded on the teachings of William Miller), Harland D. Sanders was born on Sept. 9, 1890, in Henryville, Ind. Early on, his father died and Sanders began cooking and caring for his 2- and 5-year-old brother and sister at age 7, while his mother was away for days at a time to work in a tomato canary in a nearby town. These setbacks along with cooking for his siblings would eventually become resourceful lessons.
Failed at Much
Sanders’ career paths were numerous and marked with many failures. Once, he owned a ferryboat company on the Ohio River, but a bridge was built soon after putting awash (pun intended) the need for his ferry business. Later, he bought into an acetylene lamp company, but the newly patented and popular electric light bulb darkened all prospects of his lamp business (pun intended). For a time, he studied and practiced law but his judicial career ended dramatically in a courtroom brawl with his own client. Streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, and insurance salesman were other titles he attempted, tried, and rapidly failed at.
Finally, at age 40, Sanders began running a service station in Kentucky with a small restaurant inside, serving up chicken dinners with Southern fixings. Although simple food, he felt he had a moral obligation to provide his clients with the best possible product. There, Sanders dabbled with seasonings, perfecting a flavorful mixture of herbs. His chicken recipe was taking too long to cook on the stovetop. What to do? One day he thought to place it in a pressure-cooker rather than make it the usual stove-top way. This cut prep time down. Soon, he patented this faster method all the while perfecting his secret batter. The combined culinary skills became so popular that in 1935 the then sitting Governor Ruby Laffoon of Kentucky, tried the recipe and knighted Sanders a Kentucky Colonel. Additionally, the little diner serving up slaw and mashed potatoes made the map when the visiting Duncan Hines, upcoming food critique, wrote a complimentary review of the stop in Adventures in Good Eating.1
Yet, true to the pattern of his past ventures, for Colonel Sanders putting his ideas on the map vs. keeping them on the map were two entirely different things. In the news there was talk about a new interstate coming to his town. Sanders understood clearly the interstate would route traffic a good seven miles away from his restaurant. If built, the interstate meant his “proverbial goose was cooked.” To prepare for this, he began doing two things: 1) actively fighting legislation; and 2) testing his seasoning recipe as a franchise. Yet, approximately three years later, the interstate went through redirecting traffic miles away from his enterprise.
At 64-years-old, faced with a meager Social Security check of only $105 per month, and no nest egg to retire on, the flavorful herb batter remained his only hope. What’s more, he knew from his sampling sales it would sell. Rather than bemoan the interstate taking clients, he took the interstate to clients. Striking deals with restaurant owners, he sold his secret recipe one stop at a time. For every chicken baked in his recipe, restaurant owners agreed to pay him one nickel.1
Admittedly, Sanders wasn’t walking with God as he had as a child, but he knew he now desperately needed Him. More than this, he needed God to bless his business. So, with a “wing and a prayer,” he took his first check to the local Salvation Army to be tithed. While, it would be much later before he experienced true conversion, he began returning 10 percent on every chicken check.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is ‘Hatched’
The first Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise opened in Utah in 1952. KFC popularized chicken in the fast-food industry and revolutionized the market which up until then had been predominately just hamburgers.2 In 1964, with more than 600 franchised outlets, the Colonel sold his interest in the company for $2 million to a group of investors. The company went onto become the world's largest fast-food chicken chain…1
Things He Did
The Colonel was uncompromising guarding the quality of his product. It is said he carried a large spoon inspecting his franchises. Showing up at a restaurant, if he found the quality was less than expected, he would spit the contents out onto the floor, screaming the food tasted like nothing more than wallpaper glue! (Before his full-conversion, he also swore during these exchanges. After conversion, he testified that God curbed his cursing.) Yet, to his death he maintained the standards of his original recipe and fought off any attempts to change or dilute it.
Wearing a white cotton suit by summer and changing it out for its woolen counterpart by winter, he formed a brand trademark of himself making him a recognized household face with signature red and white colors, a familiar curvy mustache atop his large smile, and a neat bowtie about his neck—all with an air of a courtly Southern gentleman. Even after selling his company, he was retained and paid handsomely by the worldwide KFC cooperation as its official brand ambassador, reproducing himself as its real-life trademark again and again for global tours.
Since he had begun actively franchising his business at the age of 65, he did not believe in retirement. Once while giving an interview he stated, “God didn’t put ʹold Adam in the Garden of Eden to retire at 65.”3 Nearing the end of his life Sanders knew he needed to walk with God more closely. One day, he walked into a small fledgling church in Louisville and gave his heart fully to God. He was very generous, even saving the church and the pastor from financial ruin. “There's no reason to be the richest man in the cemetery,” he once said. “You can't do any business from there.”
Sanders died in Louisville, Ky., on Dec. 16, 1980. Today, a Louisville museum displays a white cotton suit and a historic deep fryer—icons of persevering man and an honest tithe.
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1 ^a, b, c, Editors, Biography.com. “Colonel Harland Sanders Biography.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 8 Aug. 2019, www.biography.com/business-figure/colonel-harland-sanders.
2^a, b, Multiple Contributors. “KFC.” Overview, Wikipedia, www.bing.com/search?q=first+kfc+restaurant&form=IENTHT&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&refig=cb649c6f101b445986dbbe08725d16ff&sp=2&qs=AS&pq=first+kfc&sk=AS1&sc=8-9&cvid=cb649c6f101b445986dbbe08725d16ff.
3 Unknown, director. Colonel Sanders. PTL Club, Jim Bakker, www.bing.com/videos/search?q=colonia+harland+sanders&&view=detail&mid=514DA600F189EEC271C8514DA600F189EEC271C8&&FORM=VRDGAR.