After Colonel Sanders Sold KFC, He Confessed His True Feelings About The Franchise

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Famous for its tasty poultry, Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is today a fast-food giant. But have you ever noticed the smiling face adorning the company’s advertising and packaging? That’s Colonel Sanders and believe it or not, he is single-handedly responsible for KFC’s existence. And even after he sold the company, he remained heavily involved in the business. So much so, that when one of his recipes was changed, the whole world knew about it.

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These days, of course, KFC is the second-biggest fast-food chain on the planet, and only McDonald’s is bigger. Indeed, with more than 22,000 restaurants in over 130 countries, KFC is clearly adored by meat-eaters the world over. But this enormous success all started with just one man in a small kitchen at a Kentucky gas station.

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Spurred on by a love of cooking, the man that would become known as Colonel Sanders made great fried chicken. More importantly, he wanted to share it with his gas station customers. From there, that small one-worker operation grew beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And, as we’ll see, that success is partly due to Sanders’ forceful personality. But he didn’t become a success overnight.

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While the salesman became something of a local celebrity, it wasn’t until he sold his company that things really took off. And the new owners made the smart decision to keep the Colonel heavily involved in the business. Indeed, he starred in commercials, appeared on chat shows and, crucially, kept an eye on his unique recipes. In return, KFC got living, breathing proof of their Southern authenticity.

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But just because Sanders remained in the employ of KFC doesn’t mean that he toed the company line. Yes, while KFC spokesperson, he more than once slammed the new owners and the changes made to his recipes. And despite drawing a salary from the chain, the Colonel could often be found publicly criticizing the food.

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However, even without having invented KFC, the man who would become Colonel Sanders had a pretty interesting life. And, although the sale of the company made him a millionaire, he was in his seventies by that time. Now you might think that that’s an awful lot of non-chicken related living before hitting it big. And some of it might surprise you, as we’ll now find out.

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So born in September 1890 in Indiana, Harland Sanders was the eldest of three siblings. His father, Wilbur, was a farmer, while his mom, Margaret, was a homemaker. But when their eldest son was just five years old, something happened that changed the family forever. That’s right, In 1895, Wilbur died suddenly, leaving his wife to raise the children alone. As we’ll see, however, that perhaps galvanized young Harland.

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For example, taking a job meant that Margaret had to leave her kids alone for long stretches. Around this time, in an effort to help out, Sanders learned to cook. And baking, roasting, meat, vegetables, you name it, he could make it delicious. However, all this new responsibility must have meant that the young man’s schooling suffered. Although, the man himself would later blame something else entirely for his falling out of education.

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Yes, dropping out of school at around 12, Sanders recalled an experience that he says put him off for life. For in the seventh grade, he was in math class when he experienced algebra for the first time. And he was not impressed. As he told The New Yorker in 1970, “I thought, ‘Oh Lord, if we got to wrestle with this, I’ll just leave.” And leave he did. “My school days ended right there… and algebra’s what drove me off.” But perhaps changes in his family life had also not helped.

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For you see, the year before this, there was another event that may have helped Sanders make that decision. His mother married for a second time and the young Harland did not get along with his new stepfather. So the same year that he dropped out, the teenager took a job working and living on a local farm. But once he moved in with his uncle across the state, things began to get really interesting.

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From this point, Sanders started a run of jobs that would make anyone wonder how he found the time. Starting as a streetcar conductor, he then lied about his age in order to enlist in the Army. As a result, he spent four months serving in Cuba before being discharged. From there, the teenager took work stoking steam engines on a few local railway lines. And it was during this latter job that Sanders was to get lucky in love.

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That’s right, Sanders met and married his first wife, Josephine King. And the couple had three children and would stay together for the next 49 years. Furthermore, while working and raising a family, the future-Colonel studied law through the mail. Which is just as well, because not long before qualifying, he was fired from his railway job for fighting. And it wouldn’t be the last time that brawling cost the hot-tempered young man his job.

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Humorously, having practised law in the Arkansas town of Little Rock, Sanders was fired again for fighting. But this time, the brawl was between him and his actual client – in the courtroom of all places. So little wonder, then, that he lost his job. Indeed, having a fight with the person you’re meant to be representing is just bad for business. But the turmoil didn’t end there for a fiery Sanders.

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Yes, his third and perhaps final firing, came a short while later while working as an insurance salesman. But there was no fighting involved this time, however, just a charge of insubordination. From there, the future-colonel took a very different tack. In 1920, he started a ferry company in Kentucky, which by all accounts was successful. But he didn’t stay long. For three years later, he traded in his company shares and moved on.

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After losing another sales job, a chance encounter with an oil company executive set up something that would lead to another. Indeed, that meeting led to the former salesman running a gas station for the next six years. What does that have to do with fried chicken, you ask? As it turns out, everything.

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Now while the Great Depression forced the closure of Sanders’ gas station in 1930, a different company soon approached him. In fact, Shell Oil offered him living quarters in a new station, for which his family would pay no rent. Instead, the bosses just wanted a cut of the sales. And it was at this location in Corbin, Kentucky that the former salesman went back to his first love – cooking. Offering hot meals including steak, country ham and, of course, fried chicken to his travelling clientele, the food was a hit.

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At first, that success was just local, but even that led to big changes. Originally serving customers from nearby homes, Sanders eventually had to open an entire restaurant to keep up with the demand. And it was around this time that the hot-tempered restaurateur shot a guy. With a gun. Over a sign.

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Yes, remarkably, it all started when Sanders discovered that rival gas station owner Matt Stewart had painted over a sign. For the restaurateur’s eatery was not far from the highway, and in an effort to entice travelers, he’d advertised his business. But Stewart apparently took exception to the sign, which pointed towards the restaurant, and painted over it. When Sanders found out what had happened, according to MSN, he threatened to “blow his God-damned head off.”
And it didn’t end there.

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You’ve guessed it, because sometime later Sanders actually saw Stewart vandalizing the now repainted sign, and took action. Coincidentally, there were two Shell representatives at the station with the restaurateur that day and the trio chased after Stewart. Now all three were, worryingly, carrying weapons. Regrettably perhaps, a gunfight followed and Stewart took a bullet to the shoulder from his rival’s weapon. But that wasn’t the end of the shoot-out.

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Indeed, while Sanders escaped unharmed, one of the Shell reps was fatally wounded by Stewart. As a result, the gas station manager was jailed for murder. And this gave Sanders the added bonus that his competition had now fallen by the wayside. Not long after, Kentucky awarded its favorite chef the title of Colonel, the state’s highest honor.

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So popular was the Colonel’s restaurant that, in 1939, national food critic Duncan Hines came to sample the fayre. And he enjoyed it so much that that Sanders’ eatery was included in the reviewer’s book Adventures in Good Eating. Furthermore, by this time, it was perhaps no surprise that the now-famous secret blend of herbs and spices had been perfected.

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Mind you, Sanders was so proud of this recipe that in 1952, he actually franchised it to another restaurateur in Utah. And the Colonel’s blend of spices and herbs was a hit there, too. What’s more, in 1956, he sold his restaurant in Kentucky – franchising or allowing other establishments to sell his chicken instead. And while it was slow going at first, business soon picked up.

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Indeed, around eight restaurants had taken up the Colonel’s franchise offer in the first year. However, there was still work to make, pack and ship the herb and spice mix. And this was taken care of by his second wife, Claudia. Significantly, no franchisee ever got their hands on the recipe. So within four years, the number of eateries serving his chicken had grown to around 200. But it didn’t stop there, either.

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For that rapid expansion took the Colonel by surprise. However, it also meant even more work for a man who was now in his 70s. Furthermore, it showed no sign of slowing down. And at the end of 1963, over 600 restaurants in North America sold Sanders’ unique brand of chicken. Now this was certainly not bad for a one-man outfit that started in a small gas station kitchen. Incredibly, though, a major change still failed to keep the Colonel from his work.

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Yes, because despite selling the company in 1964, Sanders stayed heavily involved in the business. On the board of directors, the former restaurateur also worked as an adviser and official spokesman for KFC. And the sale itself had come with the condition that the original recipes would remain untouched. So, to ensure the integrity of that agreement, he did something rather unusual.

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When traveling around the country to promote KFC, the Colonel made a point of unexpectedly dropping in to local restaurants. There, he’d inspect the kitchens, and more importantly, taste the food. And if it wasn’t up to scratch, the employees would get a sample of that fiery temper. Indeed, banging his cane on the furniture, he’d ask of the workers, “How do you serve this God-damned slop?!” And it’s not just the restaurant staff that caught his ire, either.

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For you see, despite KFC’s assurances, some of the Colonel’s recipes were, in fact, changed. More specifically, the gravy was altered. Having tasted the offending accompaniment, Sanders’ reportedly described it as not “fit for my dogs.” But he wasn’t just talking to a friend, or a KFC employee. No, he was so aggrieved that he went public with his ire. A lot.

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In 1970, it was clear that Sanders hated the new KFC gravy. By his reckoning, as he told The New Yorker that year, the sauce should be so tasty that “it’ll make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy.” Clearly, the changes were not working for the Colonel.

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However, the company, took a more pragmatic view of the changes. As one executive explained in that 1970 New Yorker article, “Let’s face it, the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic. But you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it.” They went on, “It involved too much time, left too much room for human error and it was too expensive.” Sanders, though, never saw it that way.

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Remarkably, Sanders spent so much time criticizing the new gravy that KFC took him to court for libel. But the case was eventually thrown out. And it wasn’t just the company execs that wanted to change things up. For some restaurant employees also felt they could improve the Colonel’s unique food. And in that 1970 New Yorker piece, one executive said, “You find a lot of inventors.”

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As he went on to explain, “There are always guys who want to put their touch to the chicken… “We just had a problem with a man who switched to powdered eggs for the batter… And had messed up the product.” However, the employee, apparently, wanted Sanders to come and see his new invention. “Can you imagine what the Colonel would have said to him? [He] would have given him a cussin’ he’d never forget,” the executive said.

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And the KFC exec wasn’t wrong. For the Colonel had no problem with bad language, something he happily admitted to in 1970. “I used to cuss the prettiest you ever heard,” he said. So, it’s not surprising that he cussed up a storm over how much he hated the now changed gravy.

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“That friggin’ outfit,” Sanders reportedly said, “They prostituted every God-damned thing I had. I had the greatest gravy in the world and those sons of bitches, they dragged it out and extended it and watered it down. I’m so damn mad.” And the Colonel’s criticisms didn’t end there. In fact, he was about to compare the gravy to something more likely to be used in a DIY scenario.

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Yes, in an interview with The Louisville Courier-Journal that same year, Sanders went even further. “My God, that gravy is horrible,” he said. Furthermore, he went on to explain that for him, the watered-down sauce was exactly like “wallpaper paste. There’s no nutrition in it and they ought not to be able to sell it,” the Colonel protested. But it wasn’t just the gravy that he hated.

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During that same interview, Sanders took aim at another item on the KFC menu. “[That] crispy recipe is nothing in the world but a damn fried dough ball stuck on some chicken.” Despite this clear animosity, however, the Colonel’s relationship with the company continued until his death. Indeed, the face, voice and living emblem of the restaurant chain, he supported his product for over 15 years.

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In fact, in 1980, around the time of Sanders’ death, the chain boasted around 6,000 locations in nearly 50 countries. Now the Colonel himself had played a large part in that success, through commercials, chat shows and public appearances. Moreover, he became the brand. But then, the company wouldn’t have existed at all were it not for that secret recipe. As we’ll find out, it’s surprisingly still shrouded in secrecy.

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You see, a signed copy of the recipe is, in fact, kept under heavy security at KFC’s headquarters in Kentucky. And it’s locked away inside a safe that itself resides in a vault. What’s more, it’s one of few documents that reveals the exact combination of the 11 herbs and spices used. And despite that company exec’s protestation of complexity, according to its inventor, it’s not all that difficult to replicate.

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In fact, although Sanders only ever shared the exact recipe with KFC, he always maintained its simplicity. He claimed that, alongside pepper and salt, the remaining nine ingredients were all store-cupboard staples. And so intent was the Colonel on keeping his secret, that he never applied for a patent for the recipe. Why? Because in order to get it, public disclosure is a legal requirement. As we’ll see, not even the factory workers are given it apparently.

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Yes, astonishingly, that secrecy continues to this day. And that’s because KFC has two companies produce half the recipe each. Yes, you read that right. That’s how seriously the fast-food chain takes its ability to make chicken like no one else on the planet. Then, it’s then even mixed by an altogether different, third contractor.

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Now when Sanders died in 1980, the state where his empire began showed its respect in a big way. Indeed, his body lay in state at Kentucky’s Capitol building located in Frankfort. And more than 1,000 mourners attended the funeral where he was laid to rest in Louisville’s grand Cave Hill Cemetery. So, next time you buy a bucket, spare a thought for the man who single-handedly changed fried chicken forever. Just don’t mention the gravy.

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