The Failures and Eventual Success of Colonel Sanders

I love hard luck stories turned mega success.  We see huge companies that have been there our whole lives and think that they just appeared.  We forget that it took an actual, real live person years of struggle and rejection to finally see that level of success.  When I heard a little tidbit about Colonel Sanders story I knew I had to learn more.

Here’s what found…

Born on a farm in 1890, Harland Sanders was the oldest of 3 children.  His father died when he was 5 years old.  His younger brother was 3 and his mom was 7 months pregnant.

After his father’s death, Harland (age 5!) was in charge of the household while his mom worked full-time in a factory.   His mother remarried when Harland was 12 to an abusive man.  To avoid the beatings Harland dropped out of school and went to live with his Uncle.  At the age of 15 he lied about his age to enter the Army where he was a Mule handler in Cuba.  He was honorably discharged after just 4 months.

After returning from Cuba he bounced around from job to job.  Finally at the age of 28 he married his first wife, Josephine, and had 3 children, his only son died at an early age, leaving two daughters.  While Harland was on a business trip Josephine sold all their belongings and took the children to live with her mother.  Josephine’s brother sent Harland a letter saying  ”She had no business marrying a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job.”

His eldest daughter, Margaret, later published a book about her father.  In it she states that Harland had a mistress and even hired this woman in his home to “help with the housework”.   It’s hard to imagine that this indiscretion didn’t contribute significantly to the eventual divorce.   After the divorce from Josephine he married the mistress.

Finally in 1930, at the age of 40, Harland opened a service station in Corbin, KY where he cooked chicken and other southern dishes.  He didn’t have any seating in the service station so people would eat in his adjacent living quarters.   His cooking became so popular that he eventually moved into a nearby motel and opened a 142 seat restaurant.

He spent the next 9 years perfecting the use of a pressure fryer to cook his chicken and finally released the new version, with a new blend of spices, in 1939.  He had been pan frying it but that method took 30 minutes which was not ideal for serving hungry customers.  He found that the pressure cooker not only cooked the chicken faster but also left it with a flakier crust and juicier meat.  His new blend of spices is what we know today as “original recipe”.

In 1949, the Governor of Kentucky Lawrence Wetherby dubbed Harland Sanders as “Colonel Sanders”.  He also started developing his distinctive look as he grew goatee and began wearing a white suit.  He even bleached his mustache and goatee white to match.

In 1955, at the age of 65, his booming restaurant took a massive hit.  Interstate 75 was built which took traffic off of route 25 which is where his restaurant was situated.  Harland knew this was a death blow to his business.  He sold the restaurant at auction and received just enough to cover his debts.

At age 65, after 25 years in the restaurant business, Colonel Harland Sanders was effectively broke.  

Shortly after he received his first social security check for $105.  With nothing but his social security check and a killer chicken recipe Harland hit the road looking for restaurants to buy the rights to his recipe.

He lived in his car for 2 years and was rejected 1,009 times before finally finding a restaurant owner who agreed to use his recipe.  

Hold on… let’s think about this.  Here’s a guy, aged 65, living in his car driving around the country looking for someone to buy his chicken recipe.  He took over a thousand “No’s” before getting even on “Yes”.  That’s 1.4 ‘No’s” per day every day for 2 years.  I can’t even imagine…

His offer was to license the recipe and receive 5 cents per chicken in return.  5 cents per chicken.  From this he grew his empire!  By 1964, 9 years after he hit the road, his chicken was being sold in 600 restaurants in the US and Canada and Colonel Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken for $2 million.

Harland regretted his decision and didn’t like the changes the new owners made the franchise.  When they moved the company headquarters to Nashville Sanders said ”This ain’t no goddam Tennessee Fried Chicken, no matter what some slick, silk-suited sonofabitch says.”  He eventually bought back the Canadian portion of the company and later gave it to a charity.

Colonel Sanders left the company for good in 1970 saying  ”[I] realized that I was someplace I had no place being. … Everything that a board of a big corporation does is over my head and I’m confused by the talk and high finance discussed at these meetings.”

Harland Sanders died on December 16th, 1980 of pneumonia after being diagnosed with leukemia 6 months previous