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The Real-Life Colonel Sanders Faked His Military Career

KFC or Kentucky Fried Chicken, is one of the world’s biggest fast food brands. The finger-licking good chain has over 24,000 locations in over 145 countries. It also has one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns, with 185 million customers seeing an ad for it every week.

The core component of these ads is its spokesman, Colonel Harland David Sanders. He was named the world’s second most recognizable celebrity in 1979. He came up with the famous recipe of 11 herbs and spices after a decade of experimenting.

His own life also involved a bit of trial and error. Read on to learn why the real-life Colonel Sanders faked his military career.

The Real-Life Colonel Sanders

Harland David Sanders was born in Henryville, Indiana. He lost his father when he was six years old and was forced to cook for his siblings while his mother was at work in a tomato cannery. He even dropped out of school in seventh grade to become a farmhand.

Harland faked his age to join the army when he was 16. He was honorably discharged after a few months in Cuba in February of 1907. He earned the Cuban Pacification Medal and moved to live with his uncle in Sheffield, Alabama.

He tried several professions after the army, but his hot temper often got in the way. He got fired from a railway company after fighting with a coworker.

While he was there, he met Josephine King. They got married on June 15, 1909. They had three children, Margaret, Harland Jr., and Mildred.

He was then inspired by Clarence Darrow, the lawyer on the Leopold and Loeb murder trial. He studied law in Arkansas until a fight in the courtroom stopped his legal career. He sold life insurance but was also fired from that job due to insubordination. He even founded a ferry boat company and tried to make a lamp manufacturing company until he found out another company had made a better version of his product.

He tried several other jobs as well, but it seemed that he was out of luck. That was until his early experience with cooking for his family came in handy and eventually made him one of the largest restaurant moguls of all time.

The Start of KFC

Harland struggled as much as anyone else during the depression, but Shell Oil gave him a chance to own a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. His family was allowed to live there, and he cooked them a meal every Sunday; country ham, steak, and fried chicken.

Travelers took to the meal too, and it was so sought-after that he opened Sanders Cafe. That was also where he revolutionized the way fried chicken was made. Pan-frying took too long, and baking and french frying wasn’t as tasty.

He went to a demonstration of a brand-new device called a pressure cooker in 1939. It proved to be great for green beans, but he wondered if it could do the same for chicken.

It turned out that it could do that and more. The special tool kept the necessary moisture in the bird, and it was fast. After finding the right tool, he perfected his special recipe of 11 herbs and spices. It was so delicious that it got featured in food critic Duncan Hines’ 1935 road-food guide.

He also began his aggressive advertising methods early He painted signs on barns for miles around. Matt Stewart, the owner of a nearby Shell Oil gas station, had painted over one of his signs twice. They met with executives, and Matt brought a gun and shot district manager Robert Gibson. Harland returned fire and wounded Matt by shooting him in the shoulder. Matt was sentenced to 18 years in prison, and charges against Harland were dropped.

He bought a motel four years later. It burned to the ground, but he rebuilt it until WWII forced him to close it.

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Franchising and Becoming a Colonel

Harland was already 65 years old when he rebuilt. He relied on a $105-a-month social security check to get by. He knew he needed to make more money, and that meant expanding the business. He drove around the country in his 1964 Ford looking for new franchisees, asking for only a nickel from each sale.

His recipe was rejected 1,009 times before it was accepted. After the war, the first official KFC franchise was opened in 1952 in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was awarded to Peter Harman, a friend of Harland who came up with the restaurant’s name and pioneered the idea for its famous bucket container.

There were 600 franchises by 1964. Harland was finally willing to sell the company when interstate 75 opened nearby and slowed down business. He made the fateful decision in 1964.

KFC was purchased by Heublien Inc. in 1971 for $2 million. It is now the second-largest fast-food chain and one of the fastest-growing internationally. It’s owned by Yum! Brands, a franchise umbrella company known for its franchise education programs.

The contributions that KFC has made to not only the state of Kentucky but the world are almost incomprehensible. That’s why Governor Ruby Laffoon made him an honorary Colonel.

He decided to embrace the title and changed his image to match it. He began growing his famous facial hair and tie. He eventually switched from a black to a white suit to hide flour stains and bleached his mustache and goatee to match his white hair. That’s when he became the recognizable figure the world knows today.

Creating His Own Competitor

Most restaurants want as little competition as possible. Most restaurant stars would sit back on their fortune and let it keep rolling in, regardless of the quality of the food that got them there, but not the founder of KFC.

Colonel Sanders traveled 250,000 miles a year to visit his restaurants, and he wasn’t always impressed with what they had become. In addition to plenty of other insults, he called the gravy “slop” and said that tasted like wallpaper.

He was so upset that he opened The Colonel’s Lady Dinner House in Shelbyville Kentucky with his wife. The idea was that it would serve as a competitor that served food closer to his original vision.

In 1968. Heublein Inc. threatened to stop him, but he sued them for $122 million. They settled out of court for $1 million, but that wasn’t all.

They also included a deal for him to give the current owners cooking lessons in exchange for him to stop criticizing their food. The restaurant he opened with his wife, Claudia Sanders Dinner House, was also allowed to remain open.

Colonel Sanders was still KFC’s spokesperson and mascot until he died of pneumonia at the age of 90 in 1980. He’s buried in Lousiville’s Cave Hill Cemetery below a bust designed by his daughter.

Selling The Claudia Sanders Dinner House

The restaurant that Harland owned with his wife became a staple of the community.  It’s been sitting in Shelbyville, Kentucky for 63 years and draws in visitors for its fried chicken, coleslaw, and pie.

The same goes for the attached 5,000-square-foot private mansion. It’s known as Blackwood Hall and is the spot where Colonel Sanders and his wife lived out their final years.

Family friends Tommy and Cherry Settle have owned both the restaurant and the mansion since the 70s. Cherry was a hostess at the Claudia Sanders Dinner House, and Tommy ran a plant that provided it with ham. They’ve been living there for decades.

The Settles have never been as aggressive at marketing as Colonel Sanders and KFC were. They never posted Claudia Sanders Dinner House on social media as often, but they want to retire and have put it up for sale.

Most interested buyers are local large restaurant groups and even a few bourbon brands. One buyer wants to turn Blackwood Hall into a high-end Airbnb rental. Others want to license popular dishes such as yeast rolls and sell them in supermarkets. Others are interested in the idea of turning it into a franchise. Many of those buyers come from Japan, where KFC is a staple of Christmas dinners.

Bids and offers are likely to fly in for such a historic building, but plenty of trouble will come for anyone who wants to buy it. Not everyone is ready to accept the idea of anyone else owning the Caluda Sanders Dinner House.

Pushback Against the Sale

Yum! Brands is a rival fried-chicken chain that uses the Sanders name. They’re a $6.5 billion conglomerate with their headquarters in Lousiville, Kentucky. They also own a Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. They filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office days after the Claudia Sanders Dinner House was put up for sale.

The Settles decided to look around the property to see if they could find anything to support their side. They found a leather-bound book in the basement that allegedly contained Colonel Sanders’ closely guarded original recipe. Tommy wanted to authenticate it and sell it, but Yum! Brands sued him until they could vet it. The suit was dropped because they claimed it was nowhere close to the original.

That doesn’t mean that the issue won’t be going to court. The Settle family allegedly wants $9 million for their intellectual property, the two buildings and three-acre lot on the property, and memorabilia including the first KFC flag and bucket and a birthday letter from Colonel Sanders to President Nixon. Similar items have gone for major money. One of the Colonel’s suits sold for $21,510, and his Kentucky driver’s license went for $1,912.

Brad D. Rose is a trademark attorney at Pryor Chasman. He’s not involved with the case or KFC in any way, but he realizes how difficult it will be to come to a resolution. The brand is so recognizable and beloved that it’s difficult to get a piece of even a subset of it. He says that “whoever is going to take on the Claudia Sanders name is probably in for an uphill and expensive battle.”

Who’s your favorite restaurant mascot? Let us know in the comments below.

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