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Wait, Colonel Sanders Was Really a Colonel?

Colonel Sanders

If you ever thought that the title of Colonel Sanders, known for his finger-licking Kentucky Fried Chicken, was just a name, think again. Colonel Sanders was not just a fun icon for the chicken chain, but was an actual living person and actually did hold the title of “colonel,” though it may not be what you think.

Colonel Sanders built the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), which has become one of the world’s largest fast food chains. But it did not happen overnight. Like all great successes, there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears put into the creation of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

While you may know the Colonel’s white goatee, glasses, white suit, and black string tie, there was a lot more to the man than his brand image. He may seem sweet in those old commercials, but Colonel Sanders was a foul-mouthed, hard-working, failed businessman as well.

Harland Sanders in his Early Years

Harland Sanders, was born in Indiana at the end of the 1800s. He had a tough beginning, working as many jobs as he could from a young age. He picked up any job he could land from farming to working a streetcar, just to make ends meet.

He joined the Army when he was only 16, looking for meal ticket and a way out. But he was kicked out after 3 months, and was definitely not made a colonel. After that, he roamed around like a jack-of-all-trades as an insurance salesman, lawyer, rail worker. You name it, and he probably did it at some point.

Flat Broke

By the time he hit 40, Harland Sanders was out of money. The Great Depression was in full swing and times were hard for everyone. He moved his family to a Shell gas station and ran it. He seemed passionate about the work, even getting into a shootout with a competing gas station.

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Here, Sanders was able to meet so many travelers. People from all business passed by his doorstep. The most common question he got? Where can someone get a bite to eat? Then a light when off in his head.

Feeding the People

Once Sanders realized that all travelers needed to eat somewhere, he wanted a piece of the pie. Of course, he didn’t have money to start a restaurant, so he just fed people at his dinner table. People heard about his cooking and actually started coming to seek him out.

The term Sanders used for his service was “home meal replacement,” meaning it was good food that was a nice substitute when you were on the road. Travelers never have much time and nowhere to cook, so he filled in the gap. His motto was “Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week.” Soon he was doing so well that he bought an old motel and made his first restaurant.

Give Us the Chicken!

You know where this is headed; Sanders had a lot of requests for food, but it was the chicken that kept going up in demand. He had no way to cook it fast enough as more and more people came to eat at his place. Then he found the pressure cooker and created his famous fried chicken.

His restaurant, called the Sanders Court and Café was a raging success.  The chicken was delicious, fast to cook, and great to eat when on the go.

A Colonel is No Ordinary Colonel in Kentucky

Ruby Laffon, the governor of Kentucky in 1935, gave Harland Sanders the title of a colonel. It was an honorary title meant to honor how Sanders’s chicken had improved the food of Kentucky. After that, everyone started calling him Colonel Sanders.

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A Kentucky Colonel has nothing to do with the military. It is a title given to honor people from anywhere who have done something good to put it simply. And Sanders had done something very good; he gave the people fried chicken.

Money Troubles

Even though everyone loved his chicken, Sanders was still not making much in the way of money. He struggled to keep that little restaurant going through fires and wars. He was re-given the colonel title in 1950 because he was just that well liked. But being liked doesn’t always put money in your pocket.

He realized that his café wasn’t going to go any further than it already had and sold it when he was 62. The profit was barely enough cover his bills. Then, without a café, Sanders drove around with his pressure cooker, trying to get diners to try out his recipe and give him a commission. He slept in his car during this period.

The First KFC Franchise was in Utah!

After months of trying, Sanders finally found someone to try out his recipe. It was the Do Drop Inn in Utah that became the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. And by 1960, he had franchises all over the U.S. and Canada. At last, Sanders was finally a success.

He sold KFC for $2 million in 1964, finally getting his dues for all of his hard work. Even after, he was still the face of the company, complete with his white suit and black string tie. While he may have died in 1980, his face is still the main brand for Kentucky Fried Chicken, keeping his memory alive.

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Colonel Sanders Did Not Create Fried Chicken

Fried chicken was not created by Colonel Sanders – people have been frying chicken since the middle ages.

Usually fried in chicken fat, the Scots had been doing it for centuries and brought the idea to the States when there was a Scottish immigration to the south, which became a southern cuisine staple pretty quickly.

At the same time, the African slave trade was going strong in the south. So while the slaves were frying the chicken, they added in the flavors that did not exist in Scottish food, improving the chicken to make it as tasty as it is today. 

Related: Fascinating Facts about Chicken

Image Credit: Mr. Blue MauMau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons