Did you know that, 132 years ago today, Harland David Sanders was born in Henryville, Indiana?
Now you might be thinking, “Okay. Good for him. Um. Who is Harland Sanders, again?”
Well, you likely know him better as “Colonel” Sanders, the jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur who didn’t find any real success until he was a sexagenarian and sold his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in 1952. Nowadays, however, you can find the Colonel at over 24,000 locations worldwide.
Nevertheless, as ubiquitous as he still is (Sanders passed away at ninety years old in 1980), there’s likely a lot you might not know about the Colonel besides his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. So, it’s in the spirit of his birthday that we thought we’d celebrate by looking at a few forgotten facts about the most famous Kentucky Colonel of them all – Colonel Harland Sanders.
Sanders Sells His Secret
Though he did have a less than stellar career that ranged from being a farmhand and streetcar driver to restaurateur and hotelier, Colonel Sanders was, in fact, a hard worker. Even more, however, he made some great fried chicken.
The Colonel (actually a “Kentucky Colonel” – a title first bestowed upon Sanders in 1935 by Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon) opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in South Salt Lake, Utah on September 24, 1952 at the age of 62. Still, his first venture into fried chicken franchising was an immediate success, and by the mid-1960s, there were over 600 locations across America.
Though he was likely too stubborn to admit it, the rapid growth of his company was all a bit overwhelming for the then 74-year-old Colonel, so he sold it in 1964 to a group of investors headed by John Y. Brown and Jack C. Massey for two million dollars (a little over 19 million dollars in 2022 money). Ever the showman, however, part of the deal was that he’d stay on as the company spokesperson and quality control expert – a role that Sanders sometimes regretted.
Not Sticking to Just Chicken
In 1966, Kentucky Fried Chicken went public. As a result, four years after Sanders sold franchise, there were over 1700 stores located across America. By 1969, the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
John Y. Brown knew, however, the secret behind Kentucky Fried Chicken’s success wasn’t only a secret chicken recipe, but it was also due to the showmanship and public persona of the Colonel as well. With that being said, instead of expanding on what the Colonel and his franchise did best – fried chicken – Brown thought he could put the Colonel’s face on any product, slap the word “Kentucky” in front of it, and it would meet the same success as Kentucky Fried Chicken. And that’s exactly what he tried to do with the launch of two new franchises in 1968 – the Colonel Sander’s Inns (which you can read more about in our Motel Monday feature here) and Kentucky Roast Beef ‘n’ Ham.
Viva Las Vegas!
Since the Colonel was all about showmanship, then Brown was going to give them a show indeed. In 1968, he opened up the first Kentucky Roast Beef franchise in where else but Las Vegas, Nevada. Under the leadership of Executive Vice President Kent Prestwich – a title earned by Prestwich himself after opening and successfully operating 23 Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises in only five years – the test outlet was a success. Kentucky Roast Beef sold more than $70,000 worth of roast beef sandwiches in its first month alone. That was enough to convince Brown and company to go all in with their new franchise.
Just two years after the Vegas success, over 100 franchises had opened up across America, only they were now called Kentucky Roast Beef ‘n’ Ham because, apparently, the Colonel had a secret recipe for cooking ham, too. (Brown, et al. would also experiment with other “secret recipes” that the Colonel had for ribs and fish; however, “Colonel Sanders’ Ribs” and “Kentucky Fried Fish and Chips” never came to fruition.)
Anyway, back to the sandwich: it was slow-cooked roast beef using the Colonel’s own secret 11 herbs and spices piled high on a buttered bun with a “zestful flavoring” also secretly made by the Colonel himself. Each sandwich went for 79₵ (or pretty close to $6.00 today).
Where’s the Beef (and Ham) Today?
By now you might be wondering, “Well, if Kentucky Roast Beef ‘n’ Ham was such a success, where are they now?” and that’s a good question.
You see, there are actually two answers to that question.
The first answer is that the folks at Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters didn’t take into consideration what exactly slow-cooked roast beef is – roast beef that is slowly cooked. And slow is not a good thing in the business of fast food. As a result, sandwich supply – at least fresh sandwich supply – didn’t always meet fresh sandwich demand.
The second answer is pricing. As mentioned earlier, the roast beef sandwich was 79₵ alone. No sides. No drink. Just the sandwich (which, in all fairness, was a decent size and tasted great). However, customers could go next door (sometimes literally) to Kentucky Fried Chicken and get a Jr. Chicken Dinner (two pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and a biscuit) for just 10₵ more than a roast beef sandwich cost. So, they got more bang for the buck at Kentucky Fried Chicken, while those getting just a sandwich at Kentucky Roast Beef were often still left kind of hungry.
Eventually, the time and costs ended up being what would close the Kentucky Roast Beef ‘n’ Ham only two years after the Las Vegas opening. Some were shuttered and sold off while others were turned into Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants who just also happened to carry the roast beef and ham sandwiches until around the mid- to late-1970’s. (Incidentally, Colonel Sander’s Inns wouldn’t last longer than a year after they were first franchised.) In the end, as mentioned earlier, Kentucky Fried Chicken should have stayed with what they did best – Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The Colonel’s Other Beef
Of course, none of these unsuccessful ventures were the fault of Colonel Sanders. After all, he was only the face of the company. The Colonel did, however, have beef of his own with the company he founded.
You see, always the natural showman, Harland loved being Colonel Sanders for Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. However, behind the scenes when it came to the quality control part of checking over what corporate called “the Colonel’s recipe” sometimes led him to become quite the opposite of the affable Colonel the public saw and loved.
For instance, when they changed the recipe for the gravy that he once claimed would “make you want to throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy”, the Colonel became incensed. According to Sanders, the new gravy was “sludge” that tasted like “wallpaper paste”. In response, Hublein, the owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken brand at the time, tried to sue the Colonel for libel. They were unsuccessful.
In the meantime, Sanders and his wife opened up a restaurant in Shelbyville, Kentucky, that they dubbed “Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady” where they served, among other dishes, fried chicken using the Colonel’s original recipe. Hublein came after Sanders again. This time, however, the two parties reached a settlement. The Sanders’ sold their restaurant shortly after and it was run until recently as the “Claudia Sanders Dinner House” and still featured “original recipe” fried chicken on its menu.
The restaurant and adjacent house that served as the Sanders home for 25 years was put up for sale in June 2022. Those interested in buying the property would likely be interested in knowing that, along with the house and the restaurant, the sale also includes the trademark and likeness of Claudia Sanders as well as many pieces of Colonel Sanders memorabilia including Colonel Sanders’ original Kentucky Colonel certificate, his personal Bible, money clip, wristwatch, a Happy Birthday letter from President Richard Nixon and more.
Well, we’re no Richard Nixon, but we’d like to wish the Colonel a Happy Birthday all the same today.
So, here we are in the beginning of September when the kids go back to school and, at least in most of the country, the weather starts getting a bit cooler and crisper as autumn creeps in. This year, whether it’s back to school or out on the road to do a little leaf peeping, be sure to take some Stuckey’s along with you wherever you’re headed.
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Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!
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Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!