What's a Trade Secret? (And What Would Happen if You Stole The Colonel's?)

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Earlier this week, KFC removed Colonel Harland Sanders' original handwritten recipe of 11 herbs and spices that go into the company's signature fried chicken from its safe storage place. The 68-year-old recipe had been resting in a locked filing cabinet inside a vault at the company's Louisville headquarters, and it was only removed under the watchful eyes of many guards so the company could upgrade the security around the piece of paper. Why all the fuss? Are these measures just publicity-seeking theatrics for KFC? Why does KFC need to keep the recipe under lock and key anyway?

The KFC recipe is part of a larger class of corporate knowledge known as trade secrets. Broadly defined, a trade secret is a process (think of things like Web search algorithms), formula, practice, design, or other secret information to which the public doesn't have access that allows a company to gain a competitive advantage over the rest of its industry. In this case, KFC feels that its spice blend enables the company to make particularly delicious chicken that's differentiated from the rest of the fried-chicken market. The public seems to agree; KFC raked in over $5 billion in domestic sales last year. If another chicken company got their hands on this spice blend, they could conceivably replicate the delicious fried poultry and effectively eat away at KFC's market share. As such, KFC maintains its recipe as a trade secret to keep competitors at bay.

If KFC wants to protect its recipe, why doesn't it just get a patent?

Because then the cat would be out of the bag on what the 11 spices are. In order to acquire a patent, a company has to give pretty exhaustive information on what it's patenting to the United States Patent and Trademark Office. If the office granted a patent, the information would then become public. Although KFC would have a temporary monopoly (usually for 20 years) on that particular recipe, every chicken shack owner in the country could start toying with the recipe, making little tweaks to it, and potentially coming up with something even better. None of that would be good for the Colonel. But by keeping the recipe a closely guarded secret, the company can theoretically keep its advantage forever. Since apparently no one has the first clue what the 11 spices are, much less the proportions in which they're mixed, the company can feel safe as long as it guards the recipe.

Companies with these sorts of trade secrets generally make employees sign non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements, so the select few who get to see the recipe don't run off and start their own chicken businesses. Anyone who tries to swipe a trade secret through espionage should be ready for a lot of legal liability and potential jail time. Just ask Kate Hudson, who came under fire last month for allegedly pilfering a trade secret in the formulation of her new hair-care products.

Does that mean there's no way we'll ever see another company selling KFC's chicken?
Not quite. One downside of a trade secret is that it's perfectly legal for competitors to try to reverse engineer someone else's product. You want to make KFC chicken legally? Get in the kitchen and tinker with spice blends until you figure out the one that tastes just like it. Alternatively, if a chef serendipitously came up with the spice blend independently without sneaking a peak at KFC's recipe, she could start legally trafficking in the bird.

The KFC spice blend is just one example of a jealously guarded trade secret, though. Here are a few other notable ones:

The Coca-Cola Formula
The Coca-Cola formula, which is known by the code name "Merchandise 7X," is possibly the best-known trade secret in the world. The formula, which dates back to the drink's 1886 invention by Joseph S. Pemberton, is written on a piece of paper that resides in an Atlanta bank. Despite decades of attempts to figure out the formula, no one has succeeded yet; these failures are why the knock-off store brand sodas you buy never taste quite like the real thing. Coke is not afraid to go to great lengths to maintain the secrecy of the formula. In 1977 the Indian government demanded that the company reveal the recipe to keep its ability to sell the beverage in India. Coke decided it would rather leave the market altogether rather than give up its secret; you couldn't buy a Coca-Cola in India until the government relented in 1993.

McDonald's "Special Sauce"
We all know the Big Mac jingle. What we don't know is exactly how to make the sauce. The burger itself was originally conceived in Pittsburgh to compete with Big Boy's signature burger, but it was so popular it had to get a national audience. The sauce is pretty analogous to Thousand Island dressing, but the actual formulation remains a secret sought by beef aficionados everywhere.

The Krispy Kreme Recipe
Krispy Kreme opened in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1937 after founder Vernon Rudolph bought a secret recipe for yeast donuts from a New Orleans chef. Despite the company's meteoric rise over the last seven decades, the recipe remains locked in a vault in Winston-Salem and is known by only a select few. (As someone who went to college in Winston-Salem and ate way too many Krispy Kremes, my educated guess is that the secret ingredient is either awesomeness or love. Possibly both.)

Google AdWords
AdWords is Google's advertising product that places pay-per-click banner and text ads throughout the Web and provides site-targeted ads. The system is certainly successful; it pulled in over $16 billion last year. How do the ads get placed on individual pages, though? Good question, but it's one that will remain a mystery since the algorithm is a trade secret.

Gillette Razor Designs
Here's an example of why you don't want to steal a trade secret. In 1997, Wright Industries was helping Gillette design a new razor that was extremely confidential and potentially valuable. Wright Industries employee Steven L. Davis worried that his job was in jeopardy and had a grudge against his supervisor, so he swiped a bunch of trade secrets, including drawings of razor designs and data and sent them to Bic, Warner-Lambert, and other competitors. Bad move. The 1996 Congressional passing of the Economic Espionage Act made stealing trade secrets a federal crime. Davis pled guilty to five counts of theft of trade secrets and received a sentence of 27 months in jail and over a million dollars in fines.

Ethan Trex co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.
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10 Delicious Hot Chocolate Mix-Ins

Lilechka75/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Lilechka75/iStock via Getty Images Plus

It's hot chocolate season—and while there's nothing wrong with plopping in a few marshmallows into your hot cocoa, there are many other ways to spice it up. Whether you're bored or just looking to try something new, these 10 ingredients will take your hot chocolate to the next level.

1. Peanut Butter

A jar of peanut butter in a white bowl with peanuts on a blue table.
Kevin Brine/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you're a fan of the peanut butter and chocolate combination, this recipe from One Ordinary Day is for you. Just add a few dollops of regular, creamy peanut butter right into your saucepan along with the chocolate and enjoy.

2. Nutella

For a hazelnut flavor, mix some nutella into the saucepan. This one goes best with a whipped cream garnish.

3. Maple Syrup

Maple syrup in a glass bottle on a wooden table.
showcake/iStock via Getty Images Plus

For a New England twist on cocoa, add a couple teaspoons of maple syrup. If you need an extra kick, a couple pinches of nutmeg will do.

4. Cinnamon

A mere teaspoon of cinnamon in a saucepan of hot chocolate is all it takes to create a delicious mix of cinnamon hot chocolate.

5. Oreos

sandwich cookies on a blue background
stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images Plus

You’ll need a food processor or blender to chop up around four oreos until they're the texture of sugar. Add it to the hot chocolate mix, then top with whipped cream and more crushed Oreos.

6. Peppermint

For a batch of peppermint hot chocolate, all it takes is three drops of peppermint oil and a pinch of salt.

7. Ginger

fresh ginger on a black background
martinrlee/iStock via Getty Images Plus

To make hot cocoa taste like gingerbread, add one piece of ginger, 10 cloves, and two cinnamon sticks while cooking.

8. Chili Powder

If you really want to spice up the beverage, whip up a batch of Mexican hot chocolate. This includes a little bit of ground cinnamon and a pinch of chili powder.

9. Cherry

Cherries in a jar.
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For a full batch of hot chocolate to taste like cherry, it takes a few tablespoons of maraschino cherry juice.

10. Booze

There are many types of alcohol that go well in hot chocolate. Some options include brandy, Kahlua, peppermint schnapps, raspberry liqueur, tequila, amaretto, Bailey’s Irish Creme, and even red wine.

101 Years Later: Remembering Boston's Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Boston Public Library, Flickr, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On January 15, 1919, Boston suffered one of history’s strangest disasters: a devastating flood of molasses. The “Great Molasses Flood” tore through the city's North End and deposited so much gooey residue that locals claimed they could still smell the molasses on warm days decades later.

While most of us probably think of molasses as a tasty ingredient in treats like gingerbread, the sticky stuff has quite a few other uses. With a little know-how, one can turn molasses into rum or industrial alcohol fairly easily, and the Purity Distilling Company had built the gigantic tank in Boston’s North End in 1915 to supply its booze-making operations.

The steel tank was enormous: 50 feet tall, 90 feet across, and capable of holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses. (Although Prohibition kicked in with Nebraska’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment the very next day after the 1919 disaster, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, Purity Distilling’s parent company, still had a license to distill alcohol for industrial applications.)


By Unknown - Anthony Mitchell Sammarco. Boston's North End. Arcadia Publishing, 2004, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The massive tank was nearly full on January 15, thanks to a recent infusion of 2.3 million gallons of molasses from Puerto Rico. Just after noon, something went horribly wrong. Witnesses later recalled hearing a noise like gunfire as the tank’s rivets popped and the steel sides ripped open. Suddenly, 26 million pounds of molasses were tearing down Commercial Street in a 15-foot wave.

A shockingly destructive force

A giant wave of a sticky foodstuff sounds like something from a cartoon, but the surging molasses was a shockingly destructive force. The wave moved at upwards of 35 mph, and the power was sufficient to rip buildings off of their foundations. The molasses snapped the support girders from an elevated train track and smashed multiple houses. The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’s website claimed the property damage alone totaled around $100 million in today’s dollars.

The human cost of the disaster was even more grim. The wave of molasses moved so quickly and so forcefully that anyone who was unlucky enough to be in its way didn’t stand much of a chance. They were either knocked over and crushed or drowned in the goo. The flood claimed 21 lives, and another 150 people suffered injuries. Any flood would have been disastrous, but the viscous nature of molasses made rescue attempts even trickier. Medics and police officers arrived on the scene quickly but had to slog through waist-deep goo to reach victims.


Boston Post, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even after the victims had been pulled from the muck, cleanup crews quickly learned that getting rid of 2 million gallons of molasses is no small task. In his book Dark Tide, Stephen Puleo wrote about one of the chief obstacles to the cleanup: firefighters couldn’t just use their hoses to blast the molasses off of buildings and streets with fresh water. Eventually they realized that saltwater would cut the hardened molasses and enable them to hose it down the streets into gutters. Thanks to all the foot traffic of rescue workers, cleanup crews, and rubberneckers, the sticky mess quickly moved around the city via people's shoes. In all, the cleanup effort required over 80,000 man-hours.

The Blame Game

How did this tragedy happen in the first place? The United States Industrial Alcohol Company was quick to blame everyone’s favorite early 20th-century scapegoats: anarchists. The company claimed that since its alcohol was an ingredient in government munitions, anarchists must have sabotaged the tank by detonating a bomb. Another theory explained that the molasses had fermented inside the tank, which led to an explosion.

Investigators soon found the real culprit, though: shoddy construction work. The company had been in such a hurry to get the tank built back in 1915 that it didn’t cut corners so much as it ignored the corners completely. Modern studies have found that the tank walls were both too thin and made of a steel that was too brittle to withstand the volume of molasses.

The man who oversaw the construction wasn’t an engineer or an architect; in fact, he couldn’t even read a blueprint. The tank needed to be an engineering marvel to hold all that weight, but the company never even consulted an engineer on the project. Basically, it threw up a gigantic tank as quickly and as cheaply as possible, skimped on inspections and safety tests, and hoped for the best.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In light of these details, it’s amazing that the tank held together for four years. Nearby residents reported that the tank had leaked since its construction. Rather than fix the problem, the United States Industrial Alcohol Company had painted the tank brown so the leaks would be less noticeable.

The largely working-class North End residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the disaster predictably turned their rage toward the United States Industrial Alcohol Company. USIA soon found itself named as the defendant in 125 lawsuits, which led to a legal battle that nearly matched the flood’s scale.

The Massachusetts Superior Court named Colonel Hugh Ogden as the auditor who would hear the evidence and report back on the cause of the disaster. It took Ogden nearly six years to hear testimony from 3000 witnesses. When he finally penned his report, he concluded that there was no evidence to support the company’s theory of anarchist saboteurs. Instead, Ogden found that the “factor of safety” in the tank’s construction and inspection had been woefully low. USIA was liable for the damage and paid around $7000 to the family of each victim.

The Great Molasses Flood still seems like a tragedy that could have been averted, but the disaster really drew attention to the potential repercussions of shaky construction. The case helped prompt Massachusetts and many other states to pass laws requiring that engineers and architects inspect and approve plans for major construction projects.

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