For anyone tired of tales of visionary young CEOs, here’s one old man’s meandering journey to discovering his greatest talent: He could sell the hell out of fried chicken.
Visitors to Comic-Con in San Diego this week may see a new action hero dotting the halls alongside Wolverine and Wonder Woman: a dapper Southern gent who, according to his creators, “started out as an underdog and overcame obstacles that gave him superhuman cooking skills.”
They'll likely recognize him as the face that beams over about 4,400 fried chicken joints across America.
Today's consumers may know Harland Sanders only as a brand logo, but there was a time when the man himself was a walking, talking presence on TV screens and at events across the world. A review of the many books written about his life reveals a man who was foul-mouthed and hot-tempered, had an insatiable libido, once shot a man, delivered babies, and “took his cane” to those who failed to fry chicken to his standards.
But he was also relentlessly hardworking, entrepreneurial, and charitable, giving away most of his wealth to organizations like the Salvational Army. But most of those details have been forgotten.
The Colonel, once a regular face in KFC's ads, died 35 years ago at the age of 90. Now, as the chain tries to turn around its struggling U.S. business, he's making a comeback of sorts.
Colonel Sanders recently appeared in new commercials, played by Saturday Night Live announcer Darrell Hammond. And this week for Comic-Con, the company is taking its Colonel campaign further yet. In KFC Presents: The Colonel's Adventure Comics, he appears as an unlikely superhero, rolling through a series of adventures that dramatize actual events in his life.
Such a portrayal may be a stretch, but as BuzzFeed News found from speaking to his descendants and reading the stories that documented his life, the real Harland Sanders' story is far stranger and more meandering than any grinning face on a bucket meal would let on.
Unlike the idealized founders of modern business folklore — young prodigies blessed by wealth and success before their 25th birthday — Sanders was well into his sixties before the business he is known for took shape. His is a scattered tale that echoed the rapidly changing lives of rural Americans in the early 20th century. And most of it had nothing to do with chicken.
A number of books have been written about the founder of the chain once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken: his own daughter Margaret Sanders' The Colonel's Secret: Eleven Herbs and A Spicy Daughter; journalist John Ed Pearce's The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast-Food Empire; and food writer Josh Ozersky's Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. Then there's Sanders' own book, Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin' Good.
Sanders chased a countless variety of odd jobs and failed businesses, many of them tied to the vast technological change of the early 1900s. He worked on the railroads, and then with the automobiles that overtook them. He ran a ferry service, sold gas lamps, and operated gas stations before settling down and starting a roadside motel and restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, in the 1930s.
People remember him as a tireless worker. “He just never gave up, never, never gave up on anything,” Sanders' granddaughter Josephine Wurster told BuzzFeed News. “He was a wonderful grandfather, a very caring, wonderful man. I have very fond memories.”
After many less profitable ventures, it wasn't until Sanders was nearing retirement age that he tried a novel business model that would soon transform American commerce: franchising.
Running gas stations in the late 1920s meant Sanders had experience in one of the first industries to use the franchise model. Franchising in the U.S. goes back to the mid-1800s, when the Singer sewing machine company franchised the sale and repair of its equipment, but it wasn't until the 1950s that it emerged as a driving force in the restaurant industry.
Part of that emergence was thanks to Sanders, who in the mid-1950s was approaching retirement with little in the bank. As a last-ditch plan to produce some retirement income, he drove from town to town convincing restaurant owners to sign up and pay a nickel-per-bird fee to sell his secret-recipe fried chicken.
“His business acumen was limited to running a small business out of his hip pocket,” Sanders' grandson Trigg Adams told BuzzFeed News. “And he did well at that. But it wasn't the same thing [as what KFC later became] by any order of magnitude.”
But by embarking on this modest effort, Sanders was at the forefront of the restaurant franchising boom in the U.S., which was facilitated by the same infrastructure improvements around the country — like railways and roads — that he worked on as a younger man. The enactment of the Lanham Act in 1946 to protect trademarks, the population surge, the development of the highway system, and the growth of the American suburb all created an environment that fueled the rise of the franchise.
John Reynolds, president of the International Franchise Association's Educational Foundation, described Sanders as “a pioneer.” He and his contemporaries “looked around and saw lots of businesses doing things in a non-standard way, and with lots of trial and error.” They introduced the quality control and consistency that made customers loyal not just to a single location, but to a brand.
Sanders crafted a theatrical persona of “the Colonel” to attract diners, and later to attract franchisees. In the 1970s, when he was still alive and the business was stuck in a rut, the company initiated a “recolonelization” program that focused on getting back to Sanders' principles of good food.
But Sanders had already lived through so much more before that.