Today in Brand History: KFC
Updated: Oct 14
On September 24th, 1952, American fast food restaurant chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) opened its doors for the first time as a franchise in Salt Lake City, Utah. This milestone marked the beginning of the global expansion for the iconic brand that would eventually make it one of the most recognizable restaurant chains in the world.
The Man Behind the Bucket.
Born in 1890 in Henryville, Indiana, Sanders had a tumultuous early life, dropping out of elementary school to work and help provide for his family. Sanders's father died when he was just five and his mother worked in a tomato cannery, so Sanders learned to cook by age seven and was working as a farmhand by age ten. He held a variety of jobs including steam engine stoker, insurance salesman, filling station operator, and army mule-tender (after falsifying his date of birth to join the army at age sixteen). However, his real passion was cooking.
Sanders' foray into the food industry began when he operated a service station in Corbin, Kentucky. It was here that he first started serving his legendary fried chicken, cooked in a pressure cooker that reduced cooking time significantly. In 1930, he opened a service station in Corbin, Kentucky and began serving hungry travelers his signature fried chicken.
The Birth of a Recipe
Sanders' fried chicken quickly gained a reputation for its unique blend of 11 herbs and spices. People from all around started flocking to his service station to taste this delectable creation. Sanders' culinary skills were further honed during his time as a restaurant owner in North Corbin, where he developed his secret recipe and cooking technique that would become the backbone of KFC.
Sanders' chicken was a hit, leading him to open a restaurant attached to his service station in 1952. Over the next nine years, it thrived and became a must-stop destination. Drivers would plan their route to pass through Corbin just to get a taste of the Colonel's famous fried chicken. As demand continued to grow, Sanders decided it was time to franchise his chicken business.
The Road to Franchising
He hit the road in 1952 with his recipe and pressure cookers in tow, striking deals with restaurants to cook his chicken. The turning point that same year when Sanders met Pete Harman, a Salt Lake City restaurateur. Harman was impressed by Sanders' fried chicken and the potential for its widespread popularity. They signed a franchise agreement, and Harman's Salt Lake City restaurant became the world's first KFC franchise. This momentous event marked the official beginning of KFC's global expansion.
The Salt Lake City opening marked a pivotal moment in KFC's trajectory. Over the next decade, more than 400 franchised outlets opened across the United States. Sanders sold his interest in the U.S. company in 1964 for $2 million, but remained the iconic face of the brand as a goodwill ambassador. Two years later, KFC went public and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Colonel's Endorsement
One of the key elements of KFC's success was the persona of Colonel Sanders himself. With his trademark white suit, black string tie, and distinctive goatee, Sanders became the face of the brand. He embodied the Southern hospitality and charm associated with KFC. Sanders would travel across the United States, visiting potential franchisees and promoting his chicken recipe.
He continued to represent KFC until his death in 1980 at the age of 90, though in later years he grew increasingly critical of the company's direction and quality of its food. He used his celebrity and wealth from the brand's success to give back to his local community. His charitable efforts included donating land that became a major highway through Corbin as well as establishing and funding the Colonel Harland Sanders Trust and Colonel Harland Sanders Charitable Organization which provided college scholarships, made charitable donations, and more.
Expanding Across Borders & Acquisition by PepsiCo. International expansion began in the 1950s starting with locations in Canada and Jamaica. Overseas growth accelerated rapidly starting in the late 1960s, making KFC the first American fast food brand to expand globally. With its famous "finger-lickin' good" slogan and irresistible fried chicken, the brand was a household name.
In 1986, KFC underwent a significant transformation when it was acquired by PepsiCo. This acquisition was part of PepsiCo's strategy to diversify its product portfolio. Under PepsiCo's ownership, KFC continued to expand and innovate. The brand benefited from the resources and expertise of its parent company, leading to the introduction of new menu items and further global growth.
Did you know?
Origin of the "Kentucky Fried Chicken" Name. That goes to Don Anderson, a sign painter who was hired by Pete Harman who purchased the first franchise. He coined the name Kentucky Fried Chicken. Harman's KFC franchise was so successful that others took note and opened franchises, paying Sanders 4 cents per chicken (around 50 cents in today's value)
The Hidden Message in the Logo: The iconic KFC logo, featuring Colonel Sanders' face, hides a subtle message. If you look closely, you'll notice that the logo's bowtie spells out "KFC."
The Signature White Suit: This was initially a cost saving measure. To save money in the early days of KFC, Sanders bought used white suits from hotels that were changing styles to save on dry cleaning.
Kentucky Fried Temper (are you letting me get away with this one?). The chicken wasn't the only thing that was hot; Sanders had a hot temper and was involved in several shootouts and confrontations earlier in life, resulting in his being convicted of murder for shooting a man in self-defense (a business rival who repainting of one of Sander's signs directing traffic to his own station).
A Career in Law Cut Short - for Brawling. Harlan Sanders studied law by correspondence through the La Salle Extension University. Sanders practiced law in Little Rock (it is unclear if he ever completed his degree), but three years in, he was forced to quit after getting into a brawl, with his own client, in the courtroom.
Colonel or "Colonel" Sanders. While Sanders did serve in the army for a year, his title was honorary, issued by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon in a ceremonial decree in 1935. After a second honorary commission in 1949, Sanders fully embraced the title and tried to look the part, growing facial hair and dressing in a suit with a string tie. He preferred being called Colonel to CEO.
KFC's Popularity in Japan: KFC is incredibly popular in Japan, where it's often considered a traditional Christmas dinner choice. Some Japanese KFC locations even accept reservations for the holiday. Why? There are many stories, one is that the custom was inspired by a customer who requested that his order of fried chicken be delivered by someone dressed as Santa Claus on Christmas.
Random "Herbs" and the Spice Girls? Kentucky Fried Chicken's (KFC) Twitter / X account only follows 11 people: the five members of the Spice Girls and six people named Herb, representing their the 11 herbs and spices in the colonel's original secret recipe.