“Hard at the front end will lead to easy at the back end.” - Colonel Sanders
Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890. Before he founded KFC, Sanders held many different positions, including; streetcar conductor; blacksmith helper; justice of the peace, steamboat operator; life insurance salesman; railroad labourer; gas station attendant; well, you get the idea. He did not actually start focusing full-time on KFC itself until he was 65 years old.
Sanders’ first foray into food was in 1930 when he began selling ham, steaks and chicken out of the back of a gas station hew as running for Shell Oil. Known for a quick temper and always willing to “mix it up,” it was during this era that Sanders was involved in a real live gunfight in which his chief competitor killed a Shell worker who was employed by Sanders. Sanders was fortunate to come out of the whole debacle alive!
However, survive he did and during the next ten years, Sanders opened a restaurant on the site of his gas station while perfecting his “Secret Recipe” of spices for his chicken. Of course, nothing is never easy. His restaurant burned down and he had to rebuild it from scratch - only to have the new one close because of WW II – he became a victim of gas rationing due to the war effort – because of rationing, he had no fuel to dispense. To make “ends meet,” he ran cafeterias for the US government in Tennessee.
By 1952, with WWII over, Sanders went back to making and serving his chicken that had become so popular before the war. And, in that very same year, he sold his first franchise to a man named Pete Harman in Utah. Harman, at the time, was running a large and successful restaurant. However, with the addition of Sanders’ chicken, sales tripled and 75% of the new revenue was coming from Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe chicken. It was during this time that the phrase “Kentucky Fried Chicken” was invented – by a sign painter named Don Anderson who had been hired by Pete Harman! Sanders also franchised his recipe to several other restaurants shortly after selling his first to Harman. But Sanders was only making 4 cents per chicken sold. So he was not exactly sitting in the lap of luxury!
But the Colonel recognized that he was on to something. So, by 1955, at the age of65, Sanders began traveling the US in his 1946 Ford looking for restaurants that would buy his “secret recipe” chicken. Sleeping many times in the back of his car, it was a tough grind for a good number of years. He was doing all of the selling and his wife was mixing the spices and shipping them to restaurants that had signed up as franchisees. There were times when Sanders was convinced he needed to close the enterprise down and do something else. But he stuck with it and the rest is history. By 1964, when Sanders was 74 years old, he had successfully franchised 600 restaurants in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Mexico and Jamaica. Feeling his age, he sold the business in that same year for $2.0 Million – about $18 Million in today’s dollars. For whatever reason, the sale did not include the Canadian rights.
It appears that Warren Buffett was not wrong when he said that sticking with things and getting really good at something pays off!
By the way, there are a couple of more interesting notes to the KFC story and Colonel Sanders himself.
To this day, the spice recipe used in KFC products is a very carefully guarded secret. While there is some suggestion that the actual recipe has been made public, a copy of the original recipe, personally signed by Sanders, rests in a vault in Kentucky. To maintain the secret, the 11 herbs and spices are made by two different companies. The first half is made by Griffith Laboratories and then it is sent to McCormick Foods for the second half in order to finish making the product. Neither of the companies knows the entire recipe.
And on a bit of a “who knew” note, you will recall that Sanders kept the Canadian rights after selling his company. He actually continued to run the Canadian busines sand moved to Mississauga, Ontario in order to do so. He lived at 1337 Melton Drive for 15 years, from 1965 to 1980, the latter being the year of his death. The ironic piece of all this is that my aunt and uncle (on my dad’s side) lived on Melton Drive, just a few blocks away from Sanders’ residence. And although I visited Bert and Ethel many, many times throughout that time period, I never once saw Sanders! Interestingly, when his residence was purchased by new owners following his passing, the new owners found two of his trademark white suits still hanging in a closet. Made by a tailor in downtown Toronto on Wellington Street, one of those suits was sold, in Dallas Texas, at auction, in 2013 for almost $22,000 USD. It is now on display is a KFC restaurant in Japan.
By the time of his death, in 1980, there were approximately 6,000 restaurants in 48 countries doing about $2 Billion in sales annually. Today, sales are closing in on$3 Billion with more than 25,000 stores in about 150 countries. China is the largest consumer of KFC in the world with more than 7,000 stores. Well done dear sir, well done!