1999 MenuMasters Hall of Fame



With his face so prominently displayed on KFC material worldwide, it's easy to think of Harland Sanders only in terms of fried chicken. But decades before the Colonel became "America's Chicken King," customers at Sanders Café in Corbin, Ky., were enjoying his food and singing his praises.

One customer fondly remembers the Colonel's Special Graham Cracker Cream Pie. Another says she had her first taste of ice box pie, "and it was out of this world." And a frequent customer, Colonel W.S. McCracken, claims the Colonel's was "the only place in the area where shrimp, oysters and other exotic seafoods could be obtained on short order."

From the time he was 6 and cooked for his younger brother and sister under his mother's supervision while she sewed to support the family, Harland Sanders was intrigued by food -- experimenting, preparing, serving and talking about it.

"He was way ahead of his time as a food technologist," says Ron Lewis, president of company operations for KFC in the mid-1970's. "Without much formal food training, he basically learned on his own."

Nearly 20 years after his death, Colonel Harland Sanders' legacy -- remarkably thorough food research, preparation and quality plus a fried-chicken recipe that has not gone out of style -- make him a posthumous selection to the Nation's Restaurant News MenuMasters Hall of Fame.

"The prominence the Colonel gave to the industry was one of his greatest contributions," says Pete Harman, president of Harman Management Co. and the first KFC franchisee in 1952. "A study recently showed that his picture is now the most recognized in the world. Twenty-five years ago he and Muhammad Ali were tied. How about that, two guys from Louisville?"

It was in the early '70's when Lewis discovered the breadth of the Colonel's food knowledge. "One of my assignments as a KFC administrative assistant at the time was to travel with the Colonel to franchisee conferences and public-relations functions. I spent a lot of time with him in test kitchens and restaurants."

Lewis always had thought of the Colonel as the fried-chicken king, but that was before they visited the Sanders' restaurant, The Colonel's Lady, in Shelbyville, Ky., just outside of Louisville.

"The Colonel held up a piece of country ham and was explaining it to me," Lewis recalls. "He spent a half hour describing this ham, talking about the cure, the fat-to-meat ratio, the temperature for cooking it."

The memory still dazzles Lewis: "Thirty minutes on a piece of ham. A chef can do 30 minutes on a Peking Duck or Beef Wellington, but who in the world can do 30 minutes on a piece of ham? That was the kind of detail and knowledge the Colonel had about food. It wasn't just chicken."

Much of the Colonel's homespun but effective research and development was conducted in his Corbin restaurant. It was here that he first heard of the pressure cooker. After much experimentation with it, he was able to fry chicken quickly under pressure, a method widely used today but first developed by the Colonel.

That was also the time when he put the final piece of his fried-chicken recipe in place: "I had ten herbs and spices, and later on I learned of another item that I thought I could add and it might improve the flavor."

However, the Colonel was afraid to tinker too much with his chicken, which had already gained a great reputation. What if that last ingredient ruined it?

One day the Colonel got an order for 500 pieces of chicken from a group taking a boat trip down the Cumberland River. These folks weren't the Colonel's regular customers, so he thought, "I'm going to try this on them."

The Colonel blended in a handful of the ingredient he thought might make his chicken taste even better. Naturally, he tried it first, "and it was the greatest chicken I had ever put in my mouth," Lewis recalls.

After World War II the Colonel's restaurant was booming, but then the federal government announced plans to build an interstate highway bypassing Corbin.

The colonel was forced to sell his operations at auction to cover his debt. He was 66 and down to a monthly $105 in Social Security checks.

He had given out his first franchise in 1952 to Harman and by 1956 had more than a dozen. It was time, he felt, actively to franchise his regionally famous fried chicken. He did this by driving across the country from restaurant to restaurant and cooking chicken for the owners and employees. If they liked it, they would add it to their menu and pay the Colonel a few cents for every Kentucky Fried Chicken they sold.

This supreme effort came when the Colonel was at retirement age for most people, but as Harman says, "It was the Colonel's tremendous drive that set him apart, right up until he was 90. He was never satisfied with what was going on. He was an absolute stickler for quality. The chicken had to be cooked right."

Joining him in this pioneering franchising effort was his wife, Claudia, who started as a waitress at Sanders Café in the early 1930's and then helped manage the business before becoming Mrs. Harland Sanders in 1949.

When he sold his business in 1964 for $2 million to a group of investors including John Y. Brown Jr., who became governor of Kentucky in 1980, the Colonel had more than 600 outlets in the United States and Canada.

After the sale he remained the spokesman for KFC, traveling 250,000 miles a year, visiting stores and promoting KFC until his death from leukemia in 1980.

"All the franchisees wanted to be good for the Colonel," Harman says. "Every franchisee respected the Colonel and wanted to do things for him. That was the thing that got KFC off the ground, and that heritage continues to this day."

 

 


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