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The incredible story of Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC

40 years after his death, Harland Sanders, the mustachioed Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) icon, remains one of the most recognizable faces in the world. A planetary success acquired thanks to his tireless determination tested many times.

A bucket of kentucky fried chicken and fries
Credit: Aleks Dorohovich via Unsplash

The name Harland Sanders may not mean anything to you, yet you would recognize his face among a thousand. For what ? Because you have certainly caught his eye on one of the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) products of which he is the founder. But before being at the head of one of the largest multinationals, Colonel Sanders suffered many failures from which he recovered each time. An impressive determination that deserves attention.


A difficult course

Harland David Sanders was born in 1890 in southern Indiana, a few hundred miles from Kentucky. His father, a farmer then a butcher, died when he was only 5 years old. To support the family, his mother works night shifts and entrusts Harland with the care of his siblings. It was there that he learned culinary techniques and developed a real taste for cooking.


When he was only 12 years old, Harland stopped studying. His mother, a strict woman, remarried, and sent him to live with members of her family. Sanders then does odd jobs: he becomes an agricultural worker, a tram driver, then enlists in the army when he has not even reached the legal age of 16.


When he returns, he does a series of jobs again. He was first an insurance salesman, then he launched his steamboat company, and was finally appointed secretary at the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. There he met the inventor of the carbide lamp from whom he bought the manufacturing rights. He then set himself a new goal: to open a factory to sell portable lamps to all Americans. But the territory becomes fully electrified, and his project falls through.


Sanders isn't losing heart. He became a railroad worker, took evening courses in law and even became a justice of the peace. Everything is finally going well until the day an altercation breaks out between Sanders and a client in the middle of court. Although exonerated, he abandons the law.



KFC, from gas station to multinational

Once is not custom, Sanders goes up the slope. In 1930, he opened a gas station where he served specialties from the southern United States to his customers. On the menu: beef steak, country ham, potatoes in sauce, biscuits... Customers feast, seated at a table of six, in Sanders' apartments located at the back of the service station. The success is such that Sanders quickly opens a coffee shop across the street. Chef, cashier, gas station attendant: Sanders fills all the positions. In 1935, the governor of Kentucky granted him the honorary title of Colonel of Kentucky to reward him.


But, in 1939, the Sanders Cafe burned down in a fire. Sanders was not discouraged and used the profits generated by the restaurant to rebuild it and add a motel, the Sanders Court and Cafe. It was during this period that he perfected his famous secret recipe for fried chicken made with 11 herbs and spices.


If 1939 was a successful year for Sanders, in Europe it was the start of the Second World War, and the consequences were felt in the United States. Fuel is rationed, traffic drops, customers are fewer... Sanders is forced to close his motel. He then places his hope on his mystery recipe and decides to franchise it. For this, he constitutes a character, Colonel Sanders, who will embody his new company: the Kentucky Fried Chicken.



The Sanders Court and Cafe reopened, life resumed, but in 1956, at age 65, Sanders went bankrupt. The reason ? A new highway diverts travelers from his restaurant. Unable to survive with his savings, Colonel Sanders sells the restaurant and goes to meet restaurateurs to convince them to franchise with the KFC brand. Sanders' determination pays off, soon KFC stores are multiplying in the country.


At 74, it's time for Colonel Sanders to step down. In 1964, he sold his business for $2 million, but remained its representative. In the following years, he traveled the world to promote it and attend the openings of new franchises. Over time, his relations deteriorated with the brand's new buyers, to such an extent that several lawsuits were filed between them. In 1974, for example, Sanders was alarmed by the quality of the products and attacked his company for non-compliance with the imposed clauses. He died at the age of 90, from leukemia, and was buried with his famous white suit and black bow tie.



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