For one thing, the Colonel is a real guy, and he and his Kentucky Fried Chicken have a long, illustrious history.
1. THE COLONEL HAD A TOUGH CHILDHOOD, BUT IT’S HOW HE LEARNED TO COOK.
Born in 1890, Harland Sanders was just 6 years old when his father died and he became responsible for looking after his younger siblings when his mother was forced to leave for days at a time to work in a canning factory. Young Sanders took over cooking in the Henryville, Ind. household—at least for the next few years. When he was 12, his mother married a man who disliked children, and Harland left to find a job on a farm. He kept up with schooling until seventh grade, at which point he became too frustrated with algebra and dropped out.
2. SANDERS STARTED SERVING HIS FAMOUS FRIED CHICKEN OUT OF A ROADSIDE SERVICE STATION.
For 25 years after leaving school, Sanders worked a series of odd jobs. By 1929 he was married with children, and Sanders opened a service station along Route 25 in Corbin, Ky. Still the family cook, he made some money on the side by selling hot meals to passing drivers. The simple Southern fare was so good that it quickly garnered local renown, earning Sanders the title of honorary colonel from the Kentucky governor in 1936 and a mention in Duncan Hines’s 1939 book Adventures in Good Eating. So he did away with the gas pumps and rebuilt the roadside business as a 142-seat restaurant and motel. This required Sanders to not only perfect the same secret chicken recipe still used by KFC today, but also to develop a method for quickly and consistently frying big batches of chicken.
3. ROAD RELOCATIONS FORCED SANDERS TO START FRANCHISING.
Sanders laid the groundwork for future franchising in 1952 when he met Pete Harman, a restaurant owner from Utah, at a food seminar. The two struck a deal, and Harman opened the first location called Kentucky Fried Chicken in Salt Lake City. Business boomed for Harman, especially after he invented the now-iconic to-go bucket; but back in Kentucky, changes to the road formations around Sanders's restaurant had resulted in less traffic and left his sales in the dust. So in 1956, the Colonel sold the Corbin location and decided to focus on franchising. Harman’s success had inspired a few interested franchisees, but at 66 years old, Sanders went on the road to drum up further interest. He brought a portable pressure cooker and a bag of seasoning from restaurant to restaurant, cooking for the staff and convincing them to buy into the company at a price of four cents for every chicken they cooked with his process.
4. WHEN SANDERS SOLD THE COMPANY, THE GRAVY CHANGED.
In 1964, less than a decade after branching out into franchising, there were already over 600 KFC locations in the U.S. and Canada. Sanders was 74 and still running the ship smoothly, but after months of wooing, he was convinced to sell the company to John Brown Jr. and Jack Massey for $2 million, an annual salary, and a position as the company’s adviser and spokesman. Sanders remained deeply involved and invested in the product and promotion until his death in 1980. (By the time he died, Brown had sold the company again and was governor of Kentucky.) But all his cursing and perfectionism couldn’t save his painstaking gravy.
“Let’s face it, the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic, but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it,” a company executive told The New Yorker in 1970. “It involved too much time, it left too much room for human error, and it was too expensive.” So the recipe was changed to the cheaper—though admittedly inferior—gravy they serve today.
5. IN FACT, SO MUCH CHANGED, SANDERS TRIED TO OPEN A COMPETING RESTAURANT.
After he sold the company, Sanders lived out the rest of his life as a KFC brand ambassador, but he didn’t always flatter the product he was supposed to be peddling—and it wasn’t just the gravy he complained about, either. In 1976, he visited a Greenwich Village location with a critic for The New York Times and declared it “the worst fried chicken I’ve ever seen.” (He called the gravy "wallpaper paste.") For their part, KFC maintained that the Colonel just wanted to keep standards as high as they had been when it was a small business. This may have been true, but it didn’t stop Sanders from trying to open a competing restaurant named Claudia Sanders: The Colonel’s Lady, after his second wife. KFC sued Sanders and the suit settled out of court for $1 million. (The restaurant still exists today as the Claudia Sanders Dinner House.)
6. THE CHICKEN RECIPE IS KEPT SECRET.
Super secret, in fact. During his lifetime, Sanders kept the blend of 11 herbs and spices first just in his own head and then written on a scrap of paper in his wallet. These days, the recipe is kept under literal lock and key at the KFC headquarters, with just a few select members of the company privy to the information and their names are never made public. Two separate suppliers are responsible for the blend so no outside sources are able to deduce the magic mixture.
The company never filed for a patent on the recipe because patents expire, but that doesn’t mean they won’t take legal action to keep the exact ratios and ingredients secret. In 2001, a couple living in Sanders’s former home found a handwritten note from the Colonel. They reached out to KFC with the intent of having it authenticated. Instead, they got sued. The company was afraid that the couple would sell the note and spill the secret. It was only after the note was inspected and found not to contain the recipe that the lawsuit was dropped.
7. …BUT THAT DOESN’T KEEP PEOPLE FROM TRYING TO REPLICATE IT.
Naturally, telling people they can’t have something—like the top secret recipe for fried chicken seasoning—only makes them more eager to get it. Plenty of people have tried to replicate the famous mix, but one man was particularly dedicated to the quest. Ron Douglas actually quit his finance management job to focus full-time on reverse engineering popular chain restaurant recipes, including KFC’s fried chicken. In 2009, Simon & Schuster published Douglas’ collection of America's Most Wanted Recipes with the KFC-dupe.
"The exact recipe has never been released," Douglas said at the time, "but mine comes really, really close. I kept trying, and with the help of the online community, we figured out a recipe that's so good most people can't tell the difference."
8. "KFC" DOESN’T STAND FOR ANYTHING. TECHNICALLY.
At least, not since 1991. Fried chicken never stopped being delicious, but in the early '90s as health-consciousness and diet crazes were on the rise, the company worried that the “fried” in Kentucky Fried Chicken was costing them valuable business. So they made a marketing decision to phase out the full name and become known exclusively by the acronym.
9. PEOPLE DON’T LIKE IT WHEN THE BRAND MESSES WITH THE COLONEL.
It doesn’t seem like Randy Quaid received much pushback when he voiced a cartoon version of the spokesman in 1999, but when the company revealed the new Colonel in the form of Darrell Hammond in May of this year, many people complained that wasn't the most respectful or accurate homage to the deceased Sanders. Even John Brown Jr., who once owned the company, weighed in, saying, "I think they are making fun of the Colonel. It is such a fascinating story, I hate to see them tarnish it." Regardless of whether or not they did so to appease the critics, KFC has already replaced Hammond—with yet another former SNL cast member, Norm Macdonald.
10. THE COLONEL IS THE STAR OF HIS OWN VIDEO GAME AND COMIC BOOK.
It seems that KFC has posthumously forgiven Colonel Sanders for all of his harsh words. This year, his likeness has starred in a video game called Colonel Quest and a graphic novel entitled KFC Presents: The Colonel’s Adventure Comics. Both riff on Sanders's real trials and tribulations before his late-in-life success.
11. IN JAPAN, KFC IS THE TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS EVE DINNER.
The first KFC location in Japan opened in 1970. Soon after, company officials found out that foreigners in the country where Christmas isn’t a national holiday had defaulted to fried chicken when they couldn’t find turkey, and ad execs decided to run with it. In 1974, KFC had a campaign proclaiming “Kurisumasu ni wa kentakkii!” (Kentucky for Christmas!) that was so successful it launched a national tradition. Decades later, Japanese families order their buckets of “Christmas Chicken” months in advance or face hours-long waits for a taste of quintessential “Americanness.”
12. KFC IS CONCERNED FOR YOUR SMARTPHONE.
The sort of messy finger food that KFC has always prided itself on isn’t necessarily a great match for the modern ubiquitous touchscreen device. And while customers could put down their phones for the duration of the meal, KFC is making it so they don’t have to. Earlier this year, the company rolled out a limited advertising campaign in Germany featuring the Tray Typer, a thin, durable, Bluetooth-compatible wireless keyboard that doubles as the lining on your fast food tray. This way, you can keep your fingers away from the phone while still accessing all your data.