Who would you consider our most iconic national figures in the U.S.? In addition to the faces on Mount Rushmore and recent presidents, what 10 to 15 names would you list for people from the past? One name that I’d include would be a man who “arrived” a bit later than most. That would be Harland Sanders, better known as simply, “Colonel Sanders.”
Sanders’ resume is a diverse and varied one. From his very humble beginnings in Henryville, Kentucky, he rose to prominence as an unlikely entrepreneur who refined a recipe for fried chicken, one that became known due his secret recipe containing “11 herbs and spices” that gave Kentucky Fried Chicken its distinctive flavor. It also allowed him to build a business enterprise that he sold at the age of 69, to John Y. Brown (former governor of Kentucky) and Jack Massey, a Memphis financier.
Today, Kentucky Fried Chicken (aka, KFC), has revenues of $23 billion, with nearly 19,000 outlets in 120 countries around the world. Not bad for a recipe for frying chicken that was forged in the backroom of Sanders’ family diner, in 1952.
The path to success that Sanders trod isn’t the one that often gets highlighted and trumpeted. No, especially not these days. We’re all about overnight success and viral video progenitors.
Sanders was the farthest thing from an overnight success that you could find. A sixth-grade dropout, he grew up dirt poor. His father died when he was five, and his widowed mother struggled mightily to feed three small children.
As the oldest, responsibility was thrust on young Harland to step up and find work to help support the family. He ended up working on a farm nearby where he learned how to milk cows, plow, stretch fence, hay, and lay crops. Later, he got a job working as a deckhand on a river boat, then migrated to the railroad. Like many men of his time, he enrolled in correspondence courses at night and later became a country lawyer. All of these steps on a long journey were leading him to what would become his career zenith when he was in his 60s—an age when people are usually considering retirement and kicking back. Sanders on the other hand, was just getting started.
Some of these scattered details about Sanders and his checkered career leading to his eventual breakthrough as “The Colonel” I already knew, but most were anecdotes and stories from talks I’d heard delivered by speakers urging audiences to “keep on, keeping on.” Recently, I went searching for a more complete picture of Sanders’ life and journey.
I wanted something more substantive to hang my knowledge about the serial entrepreneur from Kentucky, than the commercials that KFC’s been running featuring the doltish personification of Sanders, played by second-rate talent, Norm MacDonald. Thinking through this a bit more, it does seem to be in tune with the dumbed-down nature of our age. Take some nugget of truth, and simplify to the point of stupidity, or frame it in sophomoric humor, so that any depth and root back to the point of origination is severed, and call it marketing.
The information I was looking for is found in a book written in 1982, by a Kentucky newspaperman, John Ed Pierce. This was the biography and narrative I was looking for. The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast-food Empire, is filled with missing details and paints a picture of a man who was much more complex—and a bit more controversial, I’d add—than the current cartoon characterization we’re now being served up courtesy of today’s KFC.
One thing became clear reading Pierce’s book; you didn’t want to draw the ire of Sanders, as he didn’t suffer fools gladly. Hell, he didn’t suffer any kind of indignity, perceived, or not, without responding with a combination of anger, vengeance, and retribution. What a difference from today’s world where you can’t even express an opinion without some corporate suit firing you.
Take for instance this story, from 1931. At the time, Sanders was running a Shell Oil gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. A competitor down the street, a man named Matt Stewart, was poking the proverbial “stick into the hornet’s nest” when he began painting over signs that Sanders erected that directed travelers into town and his station, on the sides of barns, approaching Corbin on U.S. Highway 27.
On the morning of May 7, the Shell Oil district manager, a man named Robert Gibson, along with one of Shell’s supervisors, stopped by Sanders’ station while making their rounds. While the three men were talking, a young boy ran up and told them that Stewart was outside of town, painting over one of the sides of the barn that served as a Sanders’ billboard. The three men decided to pay Stewart a “friendly” visit in the midst of his work.
Stewart was usually packing heat and he was on this day. An argument ensued when the men got out of Gibson’s car, a shot was fired and a gunfight broke out. Gibson, hit three times near the heart, eventually died. Stewart would later tell police that Sanders fired at him and he acted in self-defense. He had a bullet wound in his shoulder to prove that someone had shot at him.
The charges against Sanders and Shelburne, the other representative of Shell, were dismissed. Sanders—little-known at the time—probably benefited from the publicity that this controversy generated. This incident, one that would surely have ruined any aspirations for business success in today’s world of air-brushed blandness, was simply another springboard for a man who refused to lose, at a time when the argument could be made that the American Dream was still intact. Certainly it was within reach of someone like Sanders, who wasn’t gifted riches, or functioning as some D-list celebrity.
So how did Sanders get from there, to the place where he ultimately became the man we know as Colonel Sanders, and a worldwide icon (not simply a national one)? It a story with many unexpected turns.
The state of Kentucky has an actual Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, which is a voluntary philanthropic organization. Sitting governors of the state commission individuals as Kentucky Colonels, a way to “recognize individuals for their service and accomplishments on behalf of others.”
Colonels, once commissioned, are commissioned for life (although one can be commissioned multiple times). According to the official website, Kentucky Colonels “are unwavering in devotion to faith, family, commonwealth and country. Passionate about being compassionate. Proud leaders who are gentle but strong in will and commitment. The generosity of our members enables the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels—as a recognized 501 (c) (3) tax exempt non-profit organization—to reach out and care for our children, support those in need and preserve our rich heritage.”
Odd, isn’t it that a man who once shot another man, would be recognized in that way— or maybe there was a time when our nation still extended redemption to individuals. Reading Pearce’s book about Sanders reinforced ideas and thoughts I’ve had about the past.
Not long after, the Colonel branched out into food, opening up Sanders Café and Shell Station, “the only place in the area where you could get a decent meal on the road,” he liked to tell truckers and others passing through, looking for a place to eat.
So how do we get to the white-haired man in the Colonels’ suit, and finger lickin’ good fried chicken made with 11 herbs and spices? I’m glad you asked.
In 1949, Sanders would receive his second commission as a Kentucky Colonel. This was also when Sanders began referring to himself as “Colonel Harland Sanders.” He was now 59 and aging, with his formerly red hair acquiring highlights of white. Prior to this, he kept his hair short, but he began letting it grow out, a bit. He began with a mustache, and later, added the signature goatee.
During a trim at the local barbershop, his barber suggested that Sanders go “whole hog” and add the white suit and string tie to his style set. He also followed the advice of a hairdresser and learned that dying his hair all white heightened the effect and rounded out his persona. The Colonel Sanders as we know him today (at least the pre-Norm MacDonald version), was born.
Sanders didn’t invent fried chicken. But he knew how to cook. His knowledge of food, and his persistence and process of trial-and-error—basically arriving at the place that he could “see” in his mind—allowed him to finally deliver a taste that sealed in the flavor he was aiming for, without being overly soggy from the pressure cookers that he was frying his chickens in.
Actually, the Colonel’s chicken wasn’t anything vastly different than other down-home versions of Southern-fried chicken, a regional delicacy. His recipe relied heavily on commercial seasoning salt that contained a mix of herbs and spices. The chicken was dipped in a wash (pronounced “warsh” by Sanders) of eggs and whole fresh milk, then rolled in the flour containing the mix of herbs and spices. Sanders insisted that only “good fresh eggs and whole fresh milk” be used in his own process. He insisted that his process gave his chicken a “tastier crust.”
Maybe the most important detail in this story is that Colonel Sanders was first and foremost a salesman. This was one of his defining characteristics and ultimately is what led him via a very circuitous manner, to his point of success with Kentucky Fried Chicken. He recognized that sales was much more art, than science. Over the years, Sanders perfected his craft, until it was honed to perfection and ready for him to take out on the road at the age of 62. This was when he began traveling out across the country, with his special recipe, and started offering it to select restaurant owners, the beginning of the KFC franchise opportunity.
If you are someone chasing an idea or a dream, then you know it’s really easy to get discouraged, or pull the plug too early on your vision. We’re often told (falsely) that if you don’t find success within a few days or months of rolling out your idea, then you are flawed, or even a failure.
Colonel Sanders life story is a point of validation for every entrepreneur, writer, or other person with an idea and a vision, to keep going, and holding true to your own belief in what you are doing. Sometimes you have to hold onto these kinds of narratives, as they are the perfect anecdote to the over-hyped counterpoint of the “overnight success.”
Bringing the Colonel Sanders story up-to-date; apparently consumers hated the Norm MacDonald impersonation of the real Colonel. KFC rolled out yet another “new Colonel” to replace the foppish MacDonald, again choosing a second-rate comedian to play Sanders, a unique individual for sure. Too bad the company’s business school-educated corporate suits can’t recognize that there was only one Colonel Sanders, and trying to mine the past simply for exploitation purposes comes up short with those people who know their history and can appreciate a hefty serving of Americana offered up courtesy of the Colonel’s rich slice of life.
Taking the time to read Pearce’s book provides context and backstory on the real Colonel Sanders. It’s been my experience that corporate types rarely take the time brush up on details like this, however. No, they just keep blundering forward, getting further and further from the point of truth and the place in time when things were functional. Another signifier of the age of collapse we’re living in.