Colonel Harland Sanders has been a fixture of the American consciousness for a few decades now. Most people would imagine that the Colonel, as well as the KFC brand, started in, well, Kentucky, but the Colonel was actually born in Henryville, Indiana, and the first Kentucky Fried Chicken was opened in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Before he was a restaurateur, the Colonel honed his cooking chops taking care of his younger brother and sister after his father died and his mother took a job in a tomato cannery, which kept her away from the home for days on end.
His mother remarried and the Colonel didn’t get along very well his stepfather, so he dropped out of the seventh grade and started to work on a nearby farm. At sixteen, he enlisted in the Army, claiming to be of legal age, and was stationed in Cuba where he drove wagons.
He only served a year and was honorably discharged in 1907. He then moved to Alabama, where his uncle got him a job working as a blacksmith’s assistant. Many odd jobs followed: ash pan cleaner, railroad fireman, life insurance salesman, and his most lucrative venture, before KFC, being the owner of a ferry boat company.
The ferry brought customers from Jeffersonville, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky and was such a success that when the Colonel decided to cash in his shares, he netted what would be hundreds of thousands of dollars today.
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The Colonel then moved to Kentucky where he worked for the Shell Oil Company at a service station. It was here that he first got into the restaurant business in a real way. He opened up his home, which was connected to the service station, to serve people ham, steak, and, of course, fried chicken. Around this time, in 1935, he was named a Kentucky Colonel by the governor for his service to the state of Kentucky, though what exactly that service was is a little unclear. The restaurant was so successful that he soon opened Sanders Court and Café in Corbin, KY.
Why is it Called Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Over the years, the Colonel spent most of his time trying to perfect his fried chicken recipe. He was dissatisfied with how long it took to pan fry a piece of chicken and he began experimenting with different ingredients and methods. Soon he found the perfect equipment for his needs: the pressure cooker. This allowed him to fry his chicken to perfection and cut the cook time nearly in half. The other component was his secret 11 spices, which are still used by KFC today, and kept under lock and key, even going so far as to make two different companies manufacture the spice blends so that no one will ever know the full recipe.
The Colonel decided on the name because Kentucky was where he came up with the recipe, and it fit his product well. He first franchised the brand to Pete Harman in 1952, a restaurant owner in Salt Lake City, and soon realized that he had a hit on his hands.
Though the name came to him easily, it was actually integral to the product’s success. In Utah, Kentucky Fried Chicken was something of a novelty and reminded people of down-home southern comfort food. Over the following years, the Colonel and his wife, Claudia, began franchising the restaurant all across the country, and eventually, the world, bringing southern fried chicken to the masses. Can you name any other business owner who had as many odd jobs as the Colonel?
Travis McDonald is a professional freelance writer who creates content for a wide variety of clients. He received his bachelor’s in English from The University of Texas at Austin and his MFA in creative writing from Virginia Tech.