Restaurants & Bars | July 27, 2019 1:47 pm

Exploring the Tumultuous Early Days of KFC

How Harland Sanders became the Colonel

Col. Sanders
Statue of Colonel Sanders, Louisville, KY
Douglas Muth/Creative Commons

Exploring the early days of fast food mainstays can often lead to compelling stories. The 2016 film The Founder, which starred Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc and told the story of the early days of McDonald’s, opened to an abundance of critical acclaim, for example. But McDonald’s is far from the only iconic franchise restaurant with an origin story steeped in colorful personalities and interpersonal drama. 

Consider the man who may well loom the largest in an array of outsize fast food personalities: Harland Sanders, aka “the Colonel,” founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

At Eater, Adam Chandler explores Sanders’s history, calling him “an ill-tempered, middle school drop-out with a huckster’s instincts and showman’s virtuosity.” Sanders grew up in an impoverished region of Kentucky and found success as the owner and operator of a service station on the Dixie Highway. From there, he got the idea that serving food might not be a bad idea. From that impulse arose the present-day fast food empire.

“Because Sanders’s story is so mythical and his image so corporatized, it’s easy to forget he was even a real person,” Chandler writes. And that’s true: the last few decades have seen a host of articles analyzing KFC’s advertising strategy, including the recent decision to use a rotating cast of actors to play Colonel Sanders. Chandler’s exploration of Sanders’s history helps give a better sense of the man who started it all, and the circumstances that brought him there. 

There’s even more to be found at Eater, or in Chandler’s book Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom.

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