If ever there was somebody who embodies the idea that it’s a long race then Harland Sanders is your man. His likeness looks down on over 14,000 fried chicken restaurants spread across the globe. The brand is one of the worlds most recognisable, rubbing it’s greasy shoulders against the likes of Coke and Maccy D’s. But the journey to success for this pioneering entrepreneur was a battle, pure and simple. He wasn’t a colonel either.
Things got off to a tough start for Harland. Born in September 1890 in a four room shack just outside Henryville, Indiana, he was the oldest of three children born to Wilbur and Margaret Sanders. By all accounts his father was a mild and affectionate man who tried to make a living as a farmer, but an accident forced him to rethink his career and he switched trades spending the next two years as a butcher. When Harland was only 5 his dad came home with a fever, lay down, and died. His mother was forced to fund the family and started working in a tomato-canning factory. The young Harland was required to cook for his family quitting school when he was 12. His mother remarried in 1902 to a violent man who repeatedly beat him so he left soon after to live with his uncle in Alabama.
At 15 Sanders falsified his date of birth and enlisted in the US Army gaining the rank of mule handler in Cuba. This was as close as he got to ever becoming a colonel. Four months after joining he was honourably discharged and went back to Alabama.
Aged 18 he married Josephine King and started a family, he had a son, Harland, Jr., who died at an early age, and two daughters, Margaret and Mildred. After losing yet another job, this time for insubordination, Josephine left him whilst he was out, selling all their furniture and worldly possessions. She took the kids back to her parents’s home. Her brother wrote to Sanders telling him to not bother coming back saying, “She had no business marrying a no-good fellow like you who can’t hold a job.”
During his early years, Sanders tried many jobs, including: steamboat pilot, insurance salesman, railroad fireman, farmer and like many a desperate entrepreneur briefly became snake oil salesman. It’s safe to say that none of these really hit home.
When he was 40 Sanders opened a service station in Corbin, Kentucky where he cooked chicken dishes for the customers. He didn’t have a traditional restaurant and customers were served from his living quarters which were next to the service station.
The business was reasonably popular and grew to an extent that Sanders was able to upgrade to a 140 seat restaurant which he called Harland Sanders Café and Museum. In the following decade he developed his “secret recipe” for frying chicken (in a pressure cooker). In 1939 food critic Duncan Hines visited Sanders’s restaurant incognito and was so impressed he listed the place in “Adventures in Good Eating,” his famous guide to restaurants throughout the US.
Around 1950, with Sanders now in his 60’s, he began developing his distinctive look wearing white suits and bleaching his moustache and goatee to match his white hair. He never wore anything else in public during the last 20 years of his life.
In 1955 the new Interstate 75 skirted around Corbin which had the effect of stopping the passing trade. At age 65, Sanders’ restaurant went broke! For the first time in his life he signed on for social security. The first cheque was for $105 and he used the cash to hit the road and began cold calling potential franchisees to see if they wanted to take on his fried chicken idea.
This was the dawn of the age of restaurant franchises and his approach was a huge success. Ten years later, aged 74, Sanders sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation for $2 million to a partnership of Kentucky businessmen. He kept the Canadian operation out of the deal and aged 75 he moved to Mississauga, Ontario to oversee his Canadian franchises. He continued to travel Canada and the US extensively, always pushing the brand and charging appearance fees.
In 1973, aged 83, he found time to sue the then parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken over alleged misuse of his image in promoting products he had not helped develop (and so was not getting a slice of the action). In 1975 the same parent company unsuccessfully sued Sanders for libel after he publicly referred to their gravy as “sludge” that tasted like “wallpaper paste”.
He died in December 1980 aged 90 years old.
You often hear entrepreneurs and entrepreneur watchers talk about the steely nerve required to keep picking yourself up when you experience a setback. Well here’s an example that we should all take our hat off to. The Colonel was 74 when he finally hit the jackpot