December 16: Colonel Harland Sanders lost his battle with leukaemia on this day in 1980, leaving behind a global restaurant franchise that he had grown to despise.
Sanders was affectionately known as ‘the Colonel’ after being awarded Kentucky’s highest honour – the title of Kentucky Colonel – in 1935, despite not serving in the military.
Born in Henryville, Indiana in 1890, Sanders worked a string of oddjobs (including a stint as a steam engine stoker, and as an insurance salesman) during his early career before finding success selling fried chicken from a roadside restaurant in 1930.
Over the next nine years, Sanders developed his patented recipe for chicken, which he kept a secret until 1952, when he sold his first franchise to a restaurant in Salt Lake, and Kentucky Fried Chicken was born.
The franchise grew rapidly, hitting 600 locations by 1963 and becoming too big for Sanders to manage alone.
In 1964 he sold the business to a group of investors for $US2 million (about $24.1 million in today’s currency).
As part of that deal, Sanders was to be paid a lifetime salary and his likeness used as the business’ trademark.
This deal set the stage for an eventual showdown between the Colonel and the adoptive parents of his hand-reared empire.
Cooking up trouble
Sanders proved a deft hand with the media and, with the guidance of an adviser, was able to increase his status from minor celebrity to a national icon, helping establish Kentucky Fried chicken as a leader in the booming fast food industry.
But all the while the new owners of the company were looking for new avenues to increase their profits, from changing the recipe to introducing new products, and none of it sat well with Sanders.
The recipe for the gravy served in the franchise’s growing network of restaurants was reportedly a major source of consternation for the Colonel, who considered the cheaper, faster-cooked recipe introduced by the new owners to be an unacceptable replacement for his own.
In some instances, Sanders was known to visit unsuspecting stores to sample the gravy, and if his high standards were not met, berate those responsible.
“My god, that gravy is horrible,” Sanders was quoted saying in the Louisville Courier-Journal; a remark he was promptly sued for.
They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste.’’
His efforts were to little avail though, and eventually Sanders and his wife Claudia set up their own restaurant – named Claudia Sanders, ‘The Colonel’s Lady’ Dinner House – with a view to build another franchise.
Then, in 1974, Sanders and his wife filed a $US122.39 million (roughly $928.6 million in 2019 terms) against packaged food and drink company Heublein, Inc (which bought KFC from the investor group in 1971).
The suit alleged Heublein had interfered with the couple’s plans to build their restaurant chain, and was misusing Sanders’ image to sell products he had never been connected with.
That misuse, the suit claimed, would cause “the general public to erroneously believe that said products originate from and are the result of the quality control and supervision of, as well as having the personal endorsement of” the Colonel.
Then in 1975 the case was settled, with Heublein paying the Sanders’ a $US1 million ($7 million today) settlement, continue his annual salary, and – perhaps most importantly – take his advice on cooking.
Five years later, Sanders was diagnosed with leukaemia and shortly afterwards died.
For the last 20 years of his life, he was never seen in public wearing anything but the white suit he was known for.
KFC’s successes continued and the company spread globally – even becoming the first western franchise to open in China.
The business now has more than 22,000 stores worldwide and – alongside sibling franchises Pizza Hut and Taco Bell – turned over $US49 billion ($71.3 billion) in sales in 2018.