How They Made It: The Chicken Empire of Colonel Sanders

In this particular installment of ‘How They Made It’ I will be focusing on iconic fried chicken ambassador and founder of KFC, Colonel Harland David Sanders.

Born on 9th September 1890 in Henryville, Indiana, David Sanders came from humble beginnings. As a result he learned the value of a hard day’s work from a very tender age.

When he was just 6 years old, David’s father died forcing his mother to join the workforce and support the family. As the eldest son, he was responsible for taking care of his younger siblings and one of his major duties was cooking many of the family meals - something that soon developed into a genuine passion.

During the next 30 years of his life, David held a large and eclectic number of occupations including a farmhand, an army-mule tender, a railroad worker, a tyre salesman, a motel manager, a ferryboat entrepreneur, an insurance salesman, an unsuccessful political candidate and a service station operator. But, it was at the service station (despite the seemingly menial nature of the job) where things began to really change for David Sanders…

As a 40 year old Kentucky service station worker, David began to utilise his culinary skills once again to cook for tired and hungry travellers who pulled in for gas. As he didn’t yet officially have a restaurant, David would invite these weary patrons to sit at the dining table of his very humble service station living quarters and cook them hearty meals which he branded the “home meal replacement” with the slogan “Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week”. Word got around and soon there were droves of hungry travellers queuing to get a piece of the David Sanders’ “home meal replacement” pie.

As Mr Sanders’ popularity really began to blossom, Governor Ruby Laffoon made him an official Kentucky Colonel in 1935, in recognition of his remarkable culinary contributions to the state - and so began the legacy of the Colonel!

Business picked up even more and Colonel Sanders moved to a larger establishment across the road from the service station to increase his capacity.  In a few short years, his restaurant was proudly listed in Dune Hines’ acclaimed culinary journal, Adventures in Good Eating. It was also here that the Colonel developed his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices…

As we all know, life is filled with unexpected twists and turns - in Colonel Sanders’ case, this came in the form of a new local interstate highway being built, which took away the traffic and passing patrons from his restaurant. Business rapidly dwindled and at the age of 65, the Colonel was left with nothing but a welfare cheque and his secret fried chicken recipe.

It took a lot more than a bout of bankruptcy to keep Sanders down and in 1955, with faith in the quality of his fried chicken; the Colonel devoted all of his time to developing his chicken franchising venture. In less than 10 years, this determined man had more than 600 KFC franchises in the US and Canada.

From this shiny little acorn grew a colossal international chicken empire, with countless families tucking into the Colonels by then famous recipe across the globe - and this secret blend of 11 herbs and spices is still used in every store today. Almost all of us must have either eaten a KFC or come across one in our lives.

Until his death in 1980, the Colonel travelled 250,000 miles a year to visit KFC restaurants around the world and as a result, his face became an integral part of the KFC brand.

The story of the Colonel just goes to show that if you’re thinking of starting that dream business or drastically changing your career, it truly never is too late. After all, Colonel Harland David Sanders started all over again at retirement age and it worked out pretty well for him!