Tuesday, September 01, 2015

The failure who refused to quit

At 65, after decades of struggle, Harland David Sanders finally had a little breathing room. His restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, was packed. His first wife had finally given him a divorce so he could marry his mistress. Heck, there was even some guy in Utah paying him 4 cents a chicken to use Sanders's chicken recipe. Life was good.

Then the government made plans for Interstate 75, which would divert traffic from Corbin. He knew this would kill his business. At 66, he sold the restaurant. With only a few thousand dollars in savings and $105 a month from Social Security, he hit the road. His wife made up packets of 11 herbs and spices, while he motored from city to city with his pressure cooker, looking for the best down-home restaurant to sell his recipe to. Colonel Sanders had launched Kentucky Fried Chicken in earnest. Within 10 years, he franchised 600 restaurants in the United States, Canada, England, Jamaica, and Mexico.

He was not born in Kentucky and the chicken was pressure fried, but Hoosier Native Pressure-Cooked Chicken does not make a person salivate. And the chicken was -- and is -- finger-licking good. One reason is the skin always sticks to the fingers.

Born on September 9, 1890, in Henryville, Indiana, his father injured his leg and lost the farm when Sanders was two. His dad worked as a butcher. When Sanders was five, his father came home with a fever, and he died the next day. His mother went to work in a tomato cannery, leaving Sanders to take care of his two younger siblings. He learned to cook.

His mother re-married when Sanders was 12. They did not get along. He dropped out of school in seventh grade, done in by algebra, and lied about his age to join the Army at 16. They sent him to Cuba where he worked for a year as a teamster. After his Army hitch, he went to live with an uncle in new Albany, Indiana, where he got a job as a streetcar conductor.

Sanders worked all his life, from painting horse carriages at 12, to working as a farmhand at 14. He worked on the railroads but kept getting fired for fighting. But he studied the law through correspondence courses. He passed the Bar exam. But he lost his law license for fighting -- with a client -- in court. He sold insurance until his employer fired him for insubordination.

At 30, he went into business for himself and started a ferry service along the Ohio River. He finally tasted success. He sold the business and set up a factory to make acetylene lamps, just as electricity finally reached Appalachia.

After that business failed, he started selling tires for Michelin, until its factory closed in 1930. He started a service station, which quickly became a victim of the Great Depression. But Shell Oil gave him a station rent-free in exchange for a cut of the gasoline sales in Corbin. He opened a roadside restaurant selling ham steaks and chicken. Success had returned. He became a Kentucky colonel. In 1939, food critic Duncan Hines and his wife,, Florence, stopped by and gave Sanders a good write-up in Hines next volume of "Adventures in Good Eating," writing, "A very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies. Continuous 24-hour service. Sizzling steaks, fried chicken, country ham, hot biscuits."

Hines was another late bloomer. In 1953, at age 73, he sold the rights to his name, which became branded as Duncan Hines cake mixes.

Having been a victim of the Great Depression, Sanders became a victim of World War II, as gas rationing ended tourism. He moved on to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where he ran a cafeteria. After the war, his wife divorced him in 1947, to his great relief, and he married Claudia Price. Together, they would change the world.

Sanders had learned a lot over a lifetime of failure. Mainly, he learned you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again, just like Dorothy Fields wrote in her song with Jerome Kern.

Within four years, he had 400 restaurants franchised. Unlike fast-food franchises, these were established businesses that were looking for a way to boost their sales. The image of a white-coated Kentucky colonel with white hair and a white goatee helped sell the product, but the key was the herbs and spices -- and the pressure fryer, which made the food faster and better by locking in the juices.

Sanders unknowingly started the Wendy's chain of hamburgers as he peddled his chickens to existing restaurants. In Fort Wayne, Indiana, he tried to talk the Clauss family into signing their restaurants up for Kentucky Fried Chicken. They declined, but he was persistent. They finally agreed and he worked with their head cook, a Korean War veteran named Dave Thomas. This benefited both men. Thomas came up with KFC's signature chicken bucket and talked Colonel Sanders into doing the TV commercials for the company. In time, Thomas owned franchises, which he sold back to the company in 1968 to start Wendy's.

By then, Sanders had sold Kentucky Fried Chicken for $2 million to YUM Brands. Yes, his recipe was worth more, but he was 74 when he sold off all except a few franchises in Canada. He remained the company's mascot (for lack of a better word) and enjoyed his fortune and fame.

The Lord knows he earned it.

On December 16, 1980, he died at age 90.

Today, September 1, is my 62nd birthday. I now am officially retired. Today also marks the publication of "Exceptional Americans 2: The Capitalists." It is available here.


  1. "And now, you know the rest of the story."

    Thanks, Don. Great story...as usual.

    1. Oh I blush from the compliment. Thank you. You should hear my Paul Harvey.

      Good (pause) day?.

  2. Happy Birthday Don.
    Keep up the good work/retirement.

  3. "acetylene laps" Get some M&Ms and put one between the a and the p.

    Happy Birthday, Happy Retirement; and happy New Career!

    1. Thanks. I shall fix. Sadly, all we have are W&Ws

  4. Happy Birthday, Don!

    We met about ten years ago, on the set of Newsmakers. I was the guy who had written a book about blogging.

    Get yourself a drive in the 'Stang. It's top-down weather.

    1. I remember the day. Stirewalt went on to Fox News.