Before it became the world's second-largest fast-food chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken was the brainchild of a man named Harland "Colonel" Sanders, who cooked up simple country dishes at a roadside gas station. Even after his death in 1980, Sanders is still the instantly recognizable face of the company. His life story—and his road to fast-food fame—includes a lot more than just chicken.
1. Sanders opened his first restaurant inside a gas station.
When Harland Sanders first began to serve meals to truck drivers at an old family dining room table wheeled into the front of his Corbin, Kentucky, service station in 1930, fried chicken was not on the menu because it took too long to prepare.
Sanders's country ham and steak dinners proved so popular, however, that he soon opened Sanders’ Café across the street and began to serve chicken fried in an iron skillet. Food critic Duncan Hines included the restaurant in his 1935 road-food guide, and it was there in 1939 that the colonel used pressure cookers to perfect his quick-frying chicken coated in his secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices.
2. He wounded a business rival in a deadly shootout.
The hotheaded Sanders never backed down from a fight, which served him well in the rough-and-tumble “Hell’s Half-Acre” neighborhood that surrounded his Shell Oil gas station. When the future fast-food giant painted advertising signs on barns for miles around, the aggressive marketing tactic rankled Matt Stewart, who operated a nearby Standard Oil gas station.
Told that Stewart was painting over one of his signs for a second time, Sanders rushed to the scene with two Shell executives. According to Josh Ozersky’s book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, Stewart exchanged his paintbrush for a gun and fatally shot Shell district manager Robert Gibson.
Sanders returned fire and wounded Stewart in the shoulder. Stewart was sentenced to 18 years in prison for murder, but charges against Sanders were dropped after his arrest.
3. Sanders served in the military but was an honorary colonel.
Sanders, who falsified his birth date in order to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1906, served in Cuba for several months before his honorable discharge. In 1935, Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon issued a ceremonial decree that commissioned Sanders as an honorary colonel.
After a second honorary commission in 1949, Sanders embraced the title and tried to look the part by growing facial hair and donning a black frock coat and string tie. Soon after, the colonel switched to a white suit, which helped to hide flour stains, and bleached his mustache and goatee to match his white hair.
4. The colonel delivered babies and practiced law before hitting it big in fast food.
Sanders had an extremely varied résumé before finding success in the fried-chicken business in his 60s. As a young man, he toiled as a farmhand and streetcar conductor before working for railroad companies across the South.
Aspiring to be the next Clarence Darrow, Sanders studied law by correspondence and practiced in justice-of-the-peace courts in Arkansas until a courtroom brawl with a client derailed his legal career. He operated a steamboat ferry that crossed the Ohio River between Kentucky and Indiana, and he sold life insurance and automobile tires.
During his time in Corbin, Sanders even delivered babies. “There was nobody else to do it,” Sanders recounted in his autobiography. “The husbands couldn’t afford a doctor when their wives were pregnant.”
5. His first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise was in Utah.
The colonel’s fried chicken first became a fast-food hit in an unlikely location—Salt Lake City, Utah. It was there in 1952 that Pete Harman, a Sanders friend who operated one of the city’s largest restaurants, became the colonel’s first franchisee. According to Ozersky, the Harman restaurant pioneered the famous bucket container and used the “Kentucky Fried Chicken” moniker. What most people associate with worldwide fast food today looked like a regional specialty on a menu in 1950s Utah.
Sanders was 65 and reliant on a $105-a-month Social Security check when he incorporated Kentucky Fried Chicken and began driving his 1946 Ford around the country signing up new franchisees.
6. After selling the company, the colonel sued Kentucky Fried Chicken for $122 million.
Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1964, and after food conglomerate, Heublein purchased the company in 1971, the cantankerous colonel began to deride the chain’s gravy as “slop” and its owners as “a bunch of boozehounds.” Although still the public face of the company, Sanders so disliked Kentucky Fried Chicken’s food that he developed plans to franchise “The Colonel’s Lady’s Dinner House” restaurant—which he opened with his wife in Shelbyville, Kentucky, in 1968—as a competitor.
When Heublein threatened to block the plan, Sanders sued for $122 million. The two sides settled out of court, with Sanders receiving $1 million and a chance to give a cooking lesson to Heublein executives in return for his promise to stop criticizing Kentucky Fried Chicken’s food. The renamed “Claudia Sanders Dinner House” was allowed to remain open and is still in operation.
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7. Sanders swore like a sailor.
The colonel may have appeared the epitome of a Southern gentleman, but his language was notoriously salty, particularly when he wasn’t pleased with the quality of food served up by franchisees. “The Colonel is famous among KFC people for the force and variety of his swearing,” reported a 1970 New Yorker profile. “I used to cuss the prettiest you ever heard,” Sanders admitted. “I did my cussin’ before women or anybody else, but somehow nobody ever took any offense.”
8. The colonel supposedly cursed a Japanese baseball team.
Legend has it that Sanders put a hex on the Hanshin Tigers after the baseball team’s joyous fans celebrated a 1985 championship by tossing his statue, taken from a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, into an Osaka river. The team’s subsequent championship drought was blamed on the “Curse of the Colonel,” but even the 2009 recovery of the statue from the muddy river bottom has yet to result in another title for the team.