On this day in 1980, the world lost one of its most eccentric, wildcard entrepreneurs, whose life story reads like a plot-busy novel. Colonel Saunders is best known for starting the KFC chain, and it’s baffling that his life story and larger-than-life character hasn’t been made into a movie yet.
For example: he was a lawyer … until he beat the shit out of his own client in a courtroom (history is unclear as to why). But he did some good in that role, like winning a lawsuit for black victims of a trainwreck during racially charged times where a black family’s strife wasn’t deemed worthy of a white man’s money. In fact, The Colonel liked to mock racial class tensions — when travelling for work, he’d get the car door for his black employee, and carry his luggage into hotels, just to mess with all the onlooking, perplexed white people.
Best known for a chicken recipe, he’s been a streetcar conductor, served time in Cuba for the US Army (after falsifying his birth records), and started his own ferry boat service on the Ohio River. He cashed in his ferry boat company to start a new venture: manufacturing acetylene lamps. (Wtf?)
At some point, he sold life insurance for Prudential Life Insurance Company … until he was fired for insubordination. And it was during his time working on the railroad that he met his wife, with whom he had a son (who died of young of infected tonsils). The internet is unsure how real the claims are, that he tried to kidnap his own son during a separation from his wife who got custody.
Anyway, he got cooking at a young age. His dad died, leaving him in charge of cooking for his younger siblings while his intensely religious mother (who wouldn’t even whistle on Sundays!) worked. When the mother remarried a man he couldn’t stand, he dropped out of grade 7 and fled town, claiming “algebra is what really drove me off.”
In 1930, Saunders was running a Shell Oil Gas Station, and it was from this gas bar that he started slinging chicken dishes. Like every business, he had competition, but Saunders literally shot his competition down in the streets. With a gun.
The man’s name was Matt Stewart, and he’d put up, or painted over a sign that directed traffic to his eating establishment, not The Colonel’s. Saunders and two Shell employees went to confront him, and a gun fight broke out. Stewart killed one of the Shell guys, and went to jail for murder, removing himself as a competitive threat. It was around this time that the governor of Kentucky granted Saunders Kentucky Colonel status.
1939 was a big year: food critic Duncan Hines praised his meal chez Saunders in his book Adventures in Good Eating (a guide to US restaurants), and Saunders bought a motel/restaurant. But it burned down (or did he burn it down!). He rebuilt it the same year with a 140-seat restaurant.
His North Corbin Restaurant kept on keeping on, until a new Interstate 75 complicated dining there, so he sold the place at 65 years of age, and using only his savings, did something wild even for him: he started driving all over the country, stopping into restaurants, offering to cook him his “finger-lickin’ good” chicken, and if they liked it, he’d sell them the franchise rights. During this tour-de-poulet, he’d sleep in the back of his car. At 65.
Soon, franchisees were coming to him. KFC was expanding internationally into Canada, the UK, even Jamaica and Mexico. He patented the cooking method, and trademarked “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good” in 1963. At 73, he was overwhelmed and sold it for $2 Million (roughly 15 million today), to two businessmen. One of whom was John Y. Brown, Jr., future governor of Kentucky.
Saunders retained Canadian rights though. That’s why he moved to Mississauga, Ontario in ’65 to oversee his Canadian franchises. And oversee them he did. Liek a violent, judgmental hawk. He spent the ’70s stopping into KFCs to sample their goods at random, and if he didn’t like it, he let it be known with a foul mouth while making a show of tossing the food in the garbage.
See, at this point, he was at war with KFC for maximizing profits over focusing on flavour. The way The New Yorker put it in 1970, “A perfectionist in an imperfect world, he dreams of fried chicken so golden and delicious that it will bring tears to the eyes of a grown man, and of cracklin’ gravy so sublime that, he says, ‘it’ll make you throw away the darn chicken and just eat the gravy.’”
But that’s not what he was tasting since selling the company. A company executive confessed, at this time, “Let’s face it, the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic, but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it. It involved too much time, it left too much room for human error, and it was too expensive.”
In 1973, Sanders sued the new owners of KFC for using his image to promote products he didn’t make. In 1975, they sued him right back (unsuccessfully) for publicly bashing their gravy. “My God, that gravy is horrible,” is the quote. “They buy tap water and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I’ve seen my mother make it. There’s no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it.”