KFC: From a Gas Station to the Global Fast-Food Sensation

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Kentucky Fried Chicken or KFC is a name that has become synonymous with crispy golden fried chicken over the past 91 years of its existence. Created by Colonel Harland Sanders, KFC has climbed its way up to be the second largest fast-food chain globally, trailing only McDonald’s in terms of sales.

Humble Beginnings

The roots of KFC can be traced to the back room of Sanders’ gas station in Corbin, Kentucky where he would often cook for his family and sometimes, even customers. All accounts state that Sanders’ used his mother’s recipes; and given the rate at which the news spread of his mouth-watering food, those recipes must’ve been something special.

Soon, the fame Sanders’ gained for his culinary skills led to the development of ‘The Harland Sanders Court & Café’ across the street from his original gas station. After being dubbed the ‘Kentucky Colonel’ by the state Governor in 1936, Sanders’ went on to perfect his original ‘secret’ recipe which remains hidden from the public eye, but apparently comprises only household ingredients.

Further, unhappy with the amount of time it took to pan-fry his iconic fried chicken, Sanders felt the need to pursue other alternatives. However, his no compromises approach led to him immediately discarding the option to deep-fry the chicken as he believed that would lower its quality. So, he turned to pressure cookers; traditionally intended for steaming vegetables, Sanders repurposed a commercial pressure cooker in order to make preparation time comparable to deep-frying while retaining the quality of pan-fried chicken.

Why did the chicken travel cross-country?

Unfortunately, the fallout from the Second World War compounded by the consequential tourism and economic decline put the Colonel’s Café under threat. Yet, the café held on to a glimmer of hope as it saw a increase in customers coming in post-war. This hope, however, did not last long with the proposed Interstate 75 threatening to take away all future viability of the Colonel’s business.

This forced Colonel Sanders to rethink his strategy. Since his café wasn’t receiving the same kind of traffic it used to, Sanders turned his focus towards franchising. In the early 1950s, Sanders sold his café, packed up and began his journey to franchise his recipe to restaurant owners all over the country. In 1952, Colonel Sanders sold the first ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ franchise to to Pete Harman, a restaurant owner in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sanders’ may not have known it at the time but this decision gave birth to the brand ‘KFC’ as we know it today.

Colonel Sanders
KFC Founder: Colonel Sanders

Sanders spent the next four years franchising his recipe to several other restaurant owners. Restaurants initially paid four (later five) cents per sale as a franchise fee in exchange for Sanders’ Original Recipe in addition to the permit for including ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’ in their menu.

This meager income proved to be insufficient, as Sanders struggled to make ends meet living off only his savings and Social Security income. Refusing to struggle to live, Sanders set out to travel across the country; going from restaurant to restaurant to franchise his recipe.

Dressed as per his Colonel brand, in his quintessential white suit, white shirt and black string tie accented by his unmistakable moustache and goatee; Sanders intended on franchising by providing on-site demonstrations of his method and recipe. Yet, one could argue that a majority of his business could have been built by his exemplary charisma. It wasn’t an easy task, but by the mid 1960s, Sanders had persuaded over 600 restaurants to include his recipe in their menu making KFC the largest fast-food franchise in the United States at that time.

In 1964, Sanders decided to sell a majority of his business to a group of investors in a deal worth US $2 million. Pete Harman, the first franchisee to Sanders’ recipe was one of the noteworthy inclusions in this group of investors headed by University of Kentucky law school graduate John Y. Brown and Nashville financier Jack Massey. The agreement maintained Colonel Sanders as the brand ambassador and trademark for KFC while also providing him with an assured lifetime salary.

How did the chicken fly overseas?

As per their agreement with Sanders, Brown and Massey owned the national and international franchising rights with the exception of England, Canada and certain states in the US. Thus, they began establishing outlets all across the United States followed by countries like Mexico, Japan, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

By 1980, KFC had established itself globally with nearly 6000 outlets in 48 countries with a recorded annual sales revenue of approximately US $2 billion. After it’s initial sale to Brown and Massy, KFC passed hands between multiple owners until finally being sold to PepsiCo in 1986. PepsiCo, borrowing experience from their successful operation of the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands, went on to help KFC flourish in the global market.

KFC is currently a subsidiary of ‘Yum! Brands’, with 24,000 outlets in 145 countries as of late-2020. This massive expansion can be attributed to KFC’s willingness to adapt their menus to cater to local tastes. Several international markets have seen the introduction of ‘Hot & Spicy’ alternatives in addition to Sanders’ Original Recipe. Asia indicated a preference for spicy foods while also having a positive reception to the Zinger burgers/sandwiches. Islamic countries generally have chicken served as halal while some Mediterranean and South-east Asian countries include fried seafood products in their menu under the brand ‘Colonel’s Catch’. That said, KFC has ensured a zero-compromises approach on their core offering, their claim to fame: pressured fried chicken seasoned with Colonel Sanders ‘Original Recipe’ of 11 herbs and spices.

KFC, to this day, remains committed to its rich history. They have been extremely vocal about their desire to uphold their brand ambassador, Colonel Sanders’ legacy while always catering to their customers with food that is simply finger-lickin’ good!

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