Visitors to Comic-Con in San Diego this week may see a new action hero dotting the halls alongside Wolverine and Wonder Woman: a dapper Southern gent who, according to his creators, "started out as an underdog and overcame obstacles that gave him superhuman cooking skills."
They'll likely recognize him as the face that beams over about 4,400 fried chicken joints across America.
Today's consumers may know Harland Sanders only as a brand logo, but there was a time when the man himself was a walking, talking presence on TV screens and at events across the world. A review of the many books written about his life reveals a man who was foul-mouthed and hot-tempered, had an insatiable libido, once shot a man, delivered babies, and "took his cane" to those who failed to fry chicken to his standards.
But he was also relentlessly hardworking, entrepreneurial, and charitable, giving away most of his wealth to organizations like the Salvation Army. But most of those details have been forgotten.
The Colonel, once a regular face in KFC's ads, died 35 years ago at the age of 90. Now, as the chain tries to turn around its struggling U.S. business, he's making a comeback of sorts.
Colonel Sanders recently appeared in new commercials, played by Saturday Night Live announcer Darrell Hammond. And this week for Comic-Con, the company is taking its Colonel campaign further yet. In KFC Presents: The Colonel's Adventure Comics, he appears as an unlikely superhero, rolling through a series of adventures that dramatize actual events in his life.
Such a portrayal may be a stretch, but as BuzzFeed News found from speaking to his descendants and reading the stories that documented his life, the real Harland Sanders' story is far stranger and more meandering than any grinning face on a bucket meal would let on.
Unlike the idealized founders of modern business folklore — young prodigies blessed by wealth and success before their 25th birthday — Sanders was well into his sixties before the business he is known for took shape. His is a scattered tale that echoed the rapidly changing lives of rural Americans in the early 20th century. And most of it had nothing to do with chicken.
A number of books have been written about the founder of the chain once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken: his own daughter Margaret Sanders' The Colonel's Secret: Eleven Herbs and A Spicy Daughter; journalist John Ed Pearce's The Colonel: The Captivating Biography of the Dynamic Founder of a Fast-Food Empire; and food writer Josh Ozersky's Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. Then there's Sanders' own book, Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin' Good.
Sanders chased a countless variety of odd jobs and failed businesses, many of them tied to the vast technological change of the early 1900s. He worked on the railroads, and then with the automobiles that overtook them. He ran a ferry service, sold gas lamps, and operated gas stations before settling down and starting a roadside motel and restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, in the 1930s.
People remember him as a tireless worker. "He just never gave up, never, never gave up on anything," Sanders' granddaughter Josephine Wurster told BuzzFeed News. "He was a wonderful grandfather, a very caring, wonderful man. I have very fond memories."
After many less profitable ventures, it wasn't until Sanders was nearing retirement age that he tried a novel business model that would soon transform American commerce: franchising.
Running gas stations in the late 1920s meant Sanders had experience in one of the first industries to use the franchise model. Franchising in the U.S. goes back to the mid-1800s, when the Singer sewing machine company franchised the sale and repair of its equipment, but it wasn't until the 1950s that it emerged as a driving force in the restaurant industry.
Part of that emergence was thanks to Sanders, who in the mid-1950s was approaching retirement with little in the bank. As a last-ditch plan to produce some retirement income, he drove from town to town convincing restaurant owners to sign up and pay a nickel-per-bird fee to sell his secret-recipe fried chicken.
"His business acumen was limited to running a small business out of his hip pocket," Sanders' grandson Trigg Adams told BuzzFeed News. "And he did well at that. But it wasn't the same thing [as what KFC later became] by any order of magnitude."
But by embarking on this modest effort, Sanders was at the forefront of the restaurant franchising boom in the U.S., which was facilitated by the same infrastructure improvements around the country — like railways and roads — that he worked on as a younger man. The enactment of the Lanham Act in 1946 to protect trademarks, the population surge, the development of the highway system, and the growth of the American suburb all created an environment that fueled the rise of the franchise.
John Reynolds, president of the International Franchise Association's Educational Foundation, described Sanders as "a pioneer." He and his contemporaries "looked around and saw lots of businesses doing things in a non-standard way, and with lots of trial and error." They introduced the quality control and consistency that made customers loyal not just to a single location, but to a brand.
Sanders crafted a theatrical persona of "the Colonel" to attract diners, and later to attract franchisees. In the 1970s, when he was still alive and the business was stuck in a rut, the company initiated a "recolonelization" program that focused on getting back to Sanders' principles of good food.
But Sanders had already lived through so much more before that.
Sanders was born in 1890 and grew up on a farm in Indiana (not Kentucky).
This makes him 12 years older than McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, who was born in 1902. It was the turn of the century and only a small fraction of Americans bothered to graduate from high school. (Even President Grover Cleveland quit school when he was 16.) Sanders' father died suddenly from a fever when he was 5, leaving him to help his mother provide for his two younger siblings. He dropped out of school in the sixth grade and started working.
"He did not lack intelligence," Pearce wrote. But he "lacked incentive and encouragement." Sanders would be self-conscious about his limited education later in life.
Sanders, who had an unpleasant relationship with his stepfather, left home when he was 12. In 1906, he lied about his age to join the Army and was sent to Cuba. He was discharged after just four months.
With such a short service, Sanders never became a military colonel. The title didn't come until 1935, when Kentucky Governor Ruby Laffoon gave him the honorary title for his charitable work, and the contributions his Corbin restaurant made to the state's cuisine. During his term, Laffoon named thousands of so-called "Kentucky colonels."
Sanders' early professional life was largely a string of random enterprises, many of them unsuccessful.
According to biographies, Sanders was a scrappy, hot-tempered man who loved to swear, and despite being hardworking, he often found himself unemployed. As KFC summarizes it, he was "a sixth-grade dropout, a farmhand, an army mule-tender, a locomotive fireman, a railroad worker, an aspiring lawyer, an insurance salesman, a ferryboat entrepreneur, a tire salesman, an amateur obstetrician, an (unsuccessful) political candidate, a gas station operator, a motel operator."
What Sanders did seem to possess was "a consuming drive to conquer all the adversities that occurred in his life," his daughter Margaret wrote in The Colonel's Secret.
It was the early 1900s and the railroads were booming. After returning from Cuba as a teen, Sanders got a job in Alabama "doodlin' ashes," or emptying ashes from fireboxes on trains, as he described it in his book. Working on trains "was probably the dream of ninety percent of all young fellows my age in those days," he wrote.
According to Pearce, "He loved the trains, loved the smell of coal smoke and the steam streaming back past the cars, loved the clack of the wheels, the lean of the cars on curves, the wailing of the whistle." He worked on the railroad for a few years, but eventually, he was fired for alleged insubordination.
Adams said his grandfather always provided for his family. Still, Sanders had a tough time holding jobs for most of his life. In fact, his first wife Josephine King left him for a period, taking their children with her, because he couldn't hold a job.
"Couldn't hold a job" is no exaggeration. After being fired from another gig at the Illinois Central Railroad for getting into a fight, he became an Arkansas lawyer in 1915 — when you could practice in the Justice of the Peace Court without being admitted to the bar — but ended that career by getting "into a fistfight with his own client in court and directly in front of a judge," as Ozersky described it in his book. He was arrested, charged with battery, and barred from further practice.
Then, he was fired from a job selling insurance.
So he started a ferry service on the Ohio River, which was put out of business when a bridge was built. He started an acetylene lighting company, with the hope of selling to farmers, but that was doomed by the spread of electricity and the lightbulb. It was the booming 1920s, and others around him were making their riches.
"He was not beaten, but he was depressed," wrote Pearce.
His term as a successful Michelin tire salesman in Kentucky ended after his car was wrecked and he was injured in an auto accident. He couldn't afford another car, so Michelin hired a replacement.
Sanders' granddaughter Wurster said it's often lost "what a hardworking, intelligent man" he was. "Grandpa did not believe in doing anything fun. You were supposed to work all the time," she said.
Later in his life, Sanders would lose $38,000 trying to open an airport in Corbin, but before that, in 1927, he would run a Standard Oil gas station in Nicholasville, Kentucky, that was wiped out by the Great Depression and the drought that followed in the region. The gas station may have been doomed, but Sanders would later realize that it was "one of the most important turns in my career." It led to opportunities that finally turned Sanders' theatricality and salesmanship into strengths.
New highways and the spread of cars became the backbone of his new business.
After the first gas station closed, Sanders started his second gas station in Corbin in a deal with Shell in 1930. Sanders would serve some food from a table in the gas station to earn a little extra money; this was the seed that would later grow into his great business.
Corbin, as Sanders recalled, was the kind of a rough town where fights between bootleggers would end in gunshots. It is where Sanders shot a man — competing gas station owner Matt Stewart — over a disagreement about painting over each other's signs on a wall to attract drivers to their respective stops. Stewart ended up killing a Shell manager in the shooting and was given 18 years for murder, according to Ozersky. Charges against Sanders were dismissed.
This is not an event KFC shies away from. Here's the company's re-enactment of the shooting.
Corbin also happens to be where Sanders "got into the baby-deliverin' business."
By volunteering for President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration — a cornerstone of the New Deal effort to put Americans back to work after the Great Depression — Sanders learned that a lot of men in the area working on the roads had pregnant wives but no money for doctors.
"So I got me a lard bucket and puts in my shears and gauze and Vaseline, and kept it ready. When I got a call I would grab that bucket and take off," he wrote in his book. What training he had is unclear. "Oh, I knowed a little about it...enough to get the job done," he said in Pearce's book.
Corbin is also where Sanders would meet Claudia Price, a divorced woman he hired to help his wife with the housework. She would become Sanders' mistress, and eventually his second wife in 1949.
"It was evident from the beginning that her presence would create turmoil," his daughter Margaret wrote. "Mother refused to accept that she alone could not satisfy Father's physical needs, which from the very beginning of their marriage had seemed excessive to her.
"Neither promiscuous nor a whoremonger, Father nevertheless had a libido which required a healthy, willing partner," she wrote. "He found one in young Claudia."
What started as a service station kitchen expanded into a motel-restaurant.
Sanders' original roadside restaurant sold fried chicken among other things, and it wasn't yet called Kentucky Fried Chicken — it was known as Sanders Court & Cafe. The café became a popular road stop for food, noted not only for its fried chicken, but also its steak, ham, and biscuits. While Sanders opened and eventually sold two other, less fortunate restaurants, Ozersky described the Corbin restaurant as an "unqualified success."
Yet Sanders' bad luck followed him to Corbin too. His 20-year-old son died of an infection after getting his tonsils removed in 1932. Then the restaurant burned down on Thanksgiving in 1939.
Sanders rebuilt a 140-seat restaurant and started pressure-frying his chicken, using a method he later patented, which sped up the cooking process. The café continued to thrive. But as Sanders approached retirement age, another obstacle — again symbolic of the changing times — looked set to put him out of business.
A highway under construction would redirect traffic away from Sanders' restaurant, which he had built over about 20 years. In 1956, he auctioned off the business for $75,000, which he said paid for his taxes and outstanding bills. By then, Sanders was 65.
"I had my social security check to live on. But that was about all, and that wasn't very much," Sanders wrote.
As most of his peers were retiring, many with big bucks in the bank, Sanders was "broke." His solution: franchising.
It was only then, as the Colonel approached what he thought would be the end of his working life, that the KFC we know today begin to take shape.
Sanders had experimented with franchising on a small scale before the highway project began. His first franchisee was a successful restaurant in Louisville. But as his Corbin restaurant faced its end, Sanders decided to quit restaurant operations and make franchising his main business. This was a critical turning point.
"He figured if he could franchise 10 restaurants, that would give him enough to retire on with his social security," his grandson Trigg Adams said. The chain spread far beyond that, always with the informality of a handshake. Sanders drove long distances with a pressure cooker and bags of spices in the trunk, often sleeping in his car, to sell his recipe. Just as the internet would later unlock a world of consumers to digital entrepreneurs, franchising freed Sanders of the geographic hurdles his restaurant suddenly faced and allowed him to collect royalties anywhere someone wanted to cook his chicken.
Sanders franchised the recipe for his popular fried chicken, but his model was unusual. In the early days, Sanders sold his blend of spices to his franchisees and trained them to cook the chicken his way. He asked them to keep track of the number of chickens used and pay him a nickel for each one sold, his daughter wrote. He also stocked kitchen equipment and sold it to them at wholesale prices. There was no standard look for restaurants that sold Kentucky Fried Chicken, but all the restaurants had to have a prominent sign reading "Featuring Colonel Sanders' Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken" with his copyrighted logo.
His franchisee Pete Harman, a Mormon in Salt Lake City, decided to develop a restaurant dedicated to Sanders' tasty product and named his restaurant Kentucky Fried Chicken. The focus shifted to opening take-out-only restaurants, an idea Sanders' daughter Margaret takes credit for. This was the start of Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.
Harman "was the one who alerted the Colonel to the possibilities of big-deal franchising," said Adams. "It was Pete's suggestion to go big-time." It went well. "I used to run seven pots at a time," Adams recalled of his time in the kitchen.
Franchisees continued to pay the 5-cent royalty. There was no franchise fee, as is standard today. "We weren't concerned about the marketable asset of selling the franchises," his daughter wrote, because securing this startup capital would pose a burden to interested restaurateurs. She said at National Restaurant Association meetings, her father told Ray Kroc, who was franchising McDonald's, it was "wrong to charge for franchises." They disagreed, but Sanders stuck by his policy as long as he owned the company.
Sanders would also supervise quality at the restaurants. "The old man just wanted to sell the best quality food he could," said Adams. "He was likely to take his cane to anyone he caught not doing everything right."
By 1963, there were more than 600 locations. In 1964, Sanders sold the company to investors for $2 million (the equivalent of about $15 million today), although he retained the rights to the business in Canada. Expansion accelerated, and the company went public in 1966. Franchisees did very well for themselves, and Kentucky Fried Chicken became a restaurant success story. By 1970, Kentucky Fried Chicken had expanded to 3,000 restaurants in 48 countries.
Had Sanders not sold Kentucky Fried Chicken, "I don't think the company would have grown as spectacularly as it did, because that took a lot of marketing skills and international law skills to work it out and make it happen," said Adams. "But you have to understand, it was growing way faster than he could control even before he sold it. That's what convinced him to give in and let them take over. He said, it's getting too big for me, too complex for me. He knew he didn't even want to handle it, especially at this age."
Yet Sanders, who was used to being involved with every aspect of growing the business, was not ready to let go.
Sanders and KFC eventually sued each other.
Even after Sanders sold Kentucky Fried Chicken, he continued to sport the beard and white suit as the company's paid spokesperson and brand ambassador, appearing in commercials and telling his story to talk show audiences through the remaining years of his life.
"He marched on to become the most famous PR man in the world," he daughter wrote." His appearance in national ads "really sent [business] to the moon," said Adams.
Relations with the company, however, became tense as the Colonel grew disappointed with the direction it was taking. The headquarters were moved to Tennessee for a short period, and the company started charging a franchise fee and moved from taking a nickel-per-chicken royalty to charging a percentage of total sales. Sanders had a distrust for corporations but now found himself to be the face of one.
When Sanders decided to open a sit-down restaurant called Colonel Sanders' Dinner House, KFC argued it had bought the rights to his name, according to Adams. When he renamed it the Colonel's Lady's Dinner House, the company argued that it owned the rights to "colonel." Sanders sued the company for $122 million for interfering with his ability to franchise this new operation. Heublein filed suit against Sanders for violating KFC trademarks. They reportedly settled in 1975.
That wasn't the end. A restaurateur from Kentucky Fried Chicken of Bowling Green also sued Sanders for libel after the Colonel complained that the chain's gravy tasted like wallpaper paste. The court threw out the suit in 1978.
Despite these tensions, Sanders continued to promote KFC through his final days.
"To him, life was work," Adams said of his grandfather. "I dearly loved him. He was a great guy."
Sanders, who lived modestly, donated much of his wealth to charities including the Salvation Army. Adams said Sanders was very proud of this. "If he had money and you had a need, he was your guy," he said, adding that his grandfather did not leave the family with a large estate.
Later in his life, religion became increasingly important. At age 89, Sanders traveled to Japan on a promo tour for the chain. He also appeared as a guest on the The PTL Club, an evangelical Christian TV program (see clip above) and discussed, among other things, his habit of cursing.
"I knew it was wrong. I couldn't quit. I started when I was real young," Sanders said, working on the railroad. "It's one thing that kept me from being whole with God."
Sanders died on Dec. 16, 1980. His family is no longer involved with KFC.
In the years following his death, KFC enjoyed tremendous growth overseas, but it has recently struggled with bad perceptions of its food and food quality — matters of great concern to the Colonel when he was alive. It has been closing stores in the U.S. for the last decade, shrinking from 5,525 outlets in 2004 to 4,370 at the end of 2014.
KFC now is looking back to the Colonel as its "North Star." Those who remember Sanders don't all appreciate the caricature of him in the new ads, although the company is keen to pay tribute to the man and his work.
"The idea of doing things with craftsmanship, doing things properly, and not taking shortcuts is very much in touch with what people are looking for," KFC's U.S. marketing chief, Kevin Hochman, told BuzzFeed News. "We think that idea of unabashedly getting back to the world's best chicken salesman will make us great again."