New Yorker Magazine 2/14/1970
Colonel Harland Sanders, the fried-chicken magnate, who seems in public to be as jolly and serene as Santa Claus, is actually one of the world’s foremost worriers. The Colonel maintains a vigilant fretfulness in the face of overwhelming good fortune. He has won money, fame, and the affection of his fellow-citizens. Now approaching the age of eighty, he has lived to see the company he founded, the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation, grow from a one-man operation to one of the giants of the food industry. There is a vast network of Kentucky Fried Chicken take-home food outlets covering every part of the nation but New York City, where the K.F.C. franchising effort has just begun. This year, these outlets will sell more than five hundred million dollars’ worth of fried chicken—more prepared food, in dollar volume, than will be sold by any other company in the world. The company has made millionaires of the Colonel and more than a hundred other people, some of them close friends of the Colonel’s. And the Colonel’s success has been artistic as well as financial—his secret recipe and his fast-frying process produce fried chicken of a quality unknown in New York restaurants and rare even in Southern restaurants.
Despite all these pleasing developments, the Colonel cannot rest easy. A perfectionist in an imperfect world, he dreams of fried chicken so golden and delicious that it will bring tears to the eyes of a grown man, and of cracklin’ gravy so sublime that, he says, “it’ll make you throw away the durn chicken and just eat the gravy.” During most of his waking hours, the Colonel is haunted by the fear that someone, somewhere, is doing something to hurt his chicken—that some upstart in the company is tampering with the recipe, or that a careless franchisee is undercooking or overcooking. The Colonel is vexed almost beyond endurance by the subject of gravy. The gravy now served by the K.F.C. franchisees is good, but it isn’t the Colonel’s. “Let’s face it, the Colonel’s gravy was fantastic, but you had to be a Rhodes Scholar to cook it,” a company executive has explained. “It involved too much time, it left too much room for human error, and it was too expensive.” This attitude is incomprehensible to the Colonel, who believes that making money is a reward for the virtuous, not a matter of cost accounting. Besides, he would rather have memorable gravy than extra profits. “If you were a franchisee turning out perfect gravy but making very little money for the company,” another K.F.C. executive has remarked, “and I was a franchisee making lots of money for the company but serving gravy that was merely excellent, the Colonel would think that you were great and I was a bum. With the Colonel, it isn’t money that counts, it’s artistic talent.”
The Colonel got rich late in life and hasn’t had time to develop expensive tastes. He says he will give away most of his money before he dies, to churches, schools, hospitals, and relatives, and he has already begun to do so. He and his wife, Claudia, live comfortably but modestly—by millionaires’ standards, at least—in a two-story, ten-room house in Shelbyville, Kentucky, a small town thirty miles east of Louisville. They also have a house in Toronto. Restless and devoted to no hobbies, the Colonel would rather work than relax. “Work don’t hurt nobody—work is wonderful for you,” he often says. “You’ll rust out quicker ’n you’ll wear out.” He is in no danger of rusting, because he never sits still. He travels two hundred thousand miles a year in pursuit of publicity and good will for Kentucky Fried Chicken; besides taping all the K.F.C. television commercials, he has appeared in innumerable parades and festivals, been on network television programs more than thirty times, and played small roles in several movies. Though the Colonel is sometimes cantankerous in private, he is a smooth, charming pro in public—outgoing, warm, funny, never at a loss for words, and patient with the demands of fans. Outside the New York area, he is probably as well known as any man in the country. Everywhere he goes, he attracts crowds of housewives who are grateful for all the nights in the kitchen that K.F.C. has spared them. The Colonel will stand by the hour with these women, signing autographs and posing for photographs. He knocks them dead with his flattery, but if you get close enough to him in a crowd you can hear him muttering a running commentary to himself: “Umm, that gal’s let herself go. . . . Look at the size of that one. . . . I don’t know when I’ve seen so many fat ones. . . . Lord, look at ’em waddle.” During these sidewalk photo sessions, Mrs. Sanders, who bores more easily than the Colonel, will sometimes stage-whisper in his ear, “After this bunch goes, let’s beat it.” When the Colonel is with small children, however, it is his turn to be charmed. “What chance has a grandpa got with a sweet little thing like that? ” he’ll say, quite sincerely. “Aren’t kids the finest folks in the world? ”
The Colonel was born September 9, 1890, on a farm about three miles from Henryville, Indiana. He learned to cook at an earlier age than many children learn to ride a bicycle. When he was six, his father died, and his mother was forced to go to work, sewing for other families and peeling tomatoes at a canning factory in Henryville. This meant that little Harland had to look after his younger sister and brother and do much of the family cooking. He had already been picking up cooking pointers from his mother, just out of curiosity. By the time he was seven, he was excelling in bread and vegetables and coming along nicely in meat. Mom was away for days at a time, leaving the kids to forage in the fields for sassafras buds and May apples by day and to go to bed when they pleased at night. “We didn’t have any babysitter, but we got along fine,” the Colonel says. “We knowed enough not to burn the house down— I don’t know why kids are so different today. We was already firmly disciplined. Mom didn’t spare the rod if we disobeyed her. And usually we didn’t, because we knew she knew better. Whatever Mom said went. She had a philosophy of life and morals that if you followed them you’d never go too far wrong. She taught me to just be a man and leave off all these unclean things like alcohol and tobacco, to take care of my body, and to go to Sunday school and church. Lord, on Sunday we wasn’t even allowed to whistle. I don’t hardly know one card from another to this day. Cards were as poison to me as alcohol or cigarettes. I never drank coffee until the last four or five years, because Mom always taught us it was bad for us.” When Harland was twelve, his mother married a man who was not enthusiastic about stepchildren, with the result that two of the three Sanders children left home—the younger boy to live with an aunt in Alabama, and Harland to make his way in the world. The future chicken tycoon landed a job on a farm near Greenwood, Indiana, for ten or fifteen dollars a month and room and board. Life wasn’t soft on the farm. Harland got up before dawn to feed the stock, went to school all day, fed the chickens and did other odd jobs in the evening, and then shucked corn some nights until eight or nine o’clock. He gave up on school in the seventh grade. “When I started to class that fall, they had algebra in our arithmetic,” the Colonel has recalled. “Well, I couldn’t conceive any part of it. The only thing I got out of it was that x equalled the unknown quantity. And I thought, Oh, Lord, if we got to wrestle with this, I’ll just leave—I don’t care about the unknown quantity. So my school days ended right there near Greenwood, Indiana, and algebra’s what drove me off.”
For the next twenty-eight years or so, the Colonel had a varied career. He stayed in farm work until he was fifteen. Between the ages of fifteen and forty, he worked as a streetcar conductor in New Albany, Indiana; served in the Army, in Cuba; got married and had three children (this marriage ended in divorce thirty-nine years later, in 1947); worked as a fireman for railroads in Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Virginia; studied law by correspondence and practiced in the justice-of-the-peace courts in Little Rock; sold insurance in Kentucky and Indiana; operated a steamboat ferry between Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Louisville, Kentucky; worked as the secretary of the Columbus, Indiana, Chamber of Commerce; manufactured acetylene lighting systems for farmers, in Columbus; sold tires in Kentucky; and ran service stations in Nicholasville and Corbin, Kentucky, creating a mild sensation in both places by brushing cars out with a whisk broom.
At the Corbin station, the Colonel cooked for his family in a back room, and to make a little extra cash he began selling a meal now and then to interstate travellers who were crazed with hunger after the greasy-spoon diet of the open road. He served them plain but delicious fare—pan-fried chicken, country ham, stringbeans, okra, hot biscuits, and so on. Word spread up and down the highway that there was terrific grub at the Sanders place. Grateful travellers carried the news to other states. The Colonel acquired a regional reputation, and in the late thirties was listed in Duncan Hines’ “Adventures in Good Eating.” There was such a clamor for the Colonel’s food that he did away with his gas pumps and set up a restaurant, eventually expanding it to seat a hundred and forty-two customers. The Colonel was already refining his secret chicken recipe of eleven spices and herbs, which is still used today by Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. And though he had chicken that was “finger-lickin’ good,” as the company now advertises, he also had problems. Pan-frying wasn’t fast enough. If he cooked the chicken after an order was placed, the customer had a thirty-minute wait; if he cooked a batch in advance, he often had chicken to throw away at closing time. The alternative was French-frying—immersing the chicken in a wire basket in deep fat. This was faster by half than pan-frying, but it produced chicken that was dry, crusty, and unevenly done. Then, in 1939, the Colonel made what is regarded in chicken circles as a historic breakthrough. He hit on the idea of frying his chicken under pressure in a newfangled utensil called a pressure cooker. After a period of experimentation, he arrived at just the right balance of pressure, cooking time, meat, fat, and fat filtration. As he had hoped, the pressure method sealed in the chicken’s flavor, preserved its moisture, and gave it a soft finish, neither greasy nor crusty; and it did all this in only eight or nine minutes.
The Colonel cannot change the gravy policy, because he sold the company in 1964. (He still serves on its board of directors, and he receives a handsome salary for his food advice and his public-relations activities.) However, though he has relinquished control of the company, the Colonel retains considerable moral authority with K.F.C. executives and franchisees, all of whom revere him as a food genius, love him for inventing a product that has made them rich, and fear his terrible wrath. The Colonel doesn’t hesitate to exploit these feelings in the gravy issue, apparently reasoning that if he can’t force the franchisees to reinstate the old gravy, he can at least make them uncomfortable about the new. During his travels on company business, he will occasionally pay an unexpected visit to a K.F.C. outlet in order to inspect the kitchen and sample the gravy. If the gravy meets his low expectations, he delivers one of his withering gravy critiques, sometimes emphasizing his points by banging his cane on whatever furniture is handy. Months or even years after these ordeals, franchisees wince at the memory of such a gravy judgment from the Colonel as “How do you serve this God-damned slop? With a straw?”
Even when he is not angry and red in the face, the Colonel is a striking figure. He stands about six feet tall and weighs two hundred pounds. He has white hair, a white mustache, and a white goatee, and he always wears a white suit, a white shirt, a black string tie, and black shoes—the appropriate outfit for a Kentucky Colonel. (The title is an honorary one, conferred by the governor of the state, and Colonel Sanders got his in the early thirties.) He is as alert and quick-witted as a man half his age, and his health is marred only by arthritis in his hands. Still adhering to the teachings of his beloved Mom, the Colonel does not play cards, smoke, or drink, except for an infrequent glass of wine with dinner. A little sign on the coffee table in the living room of the Colonel’s house reads, “People that like us will not smoke in the house. People that will smoke in the house we do not like.” Mom apparently didn’t have much to say about emphatic language, though, and the Colonel is famous among K.F.C. people for the force and variety of his swearing. The Colonel says he has been able to cut way down on his swearing since he asked the Lord for help at a church service some time ago, but he still has great difficulty calling a no-good, God-damned, lazy, incompetent, dishonest son of a [CENSORED] by any but his rightful name. “I used to cuss the prettiest you ever heard,” the Colonel said not long ago. “I’d take the name of the Lord in vain, too, though I always apologized right then, in my mind. But apologizing wasn’t good enough. The thing shouldn’t have been said in the first place. I did my cussin’ before women or anybody else, but somehow nobody ever took any offense. Only one man ever called my hand on it. That was at Richmond, Virginia—a fellow from Norfolk. I’d been talking in my full vocabulary, I guess—unconsciously, don’t you see, because it just come natural. And this fellow said, ‘Colonel, I wanta say something to you.’ He said, ‘Nobody can appreciate all that cussin’ you do.’ And I said, ‘I know that, and I’d give anything in God A’mighty’s world if I could quit. I’ve tried to quit and couldn’t.’ But I said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, though. My cussin’ don’t hurt nobody but me. But that God-damned cigarette smoke of yours is fouling up the air for ten feet around, and I haven’t had a decent God-damned breath since you sat down here.’ “
Spurred on by the growing fame of his chicken, the Colonel’s restaurant prospered for the next decade. The Colonel thought he was set for life. But in the early fifties he suffered two strokes of bad luck. First, a highway junction that was in front of his restaurant was moved to another site; this drastically cut the flow of traffic past his door. Next, it was announced that a new interstate highway was to bypass his restaurant altogether. The Colonel was convinced that his business was doomed, and in 1956 he auctioned it off, at what he says was a considerable loss. He was now reduced to living on his savings, what he had salvaged from the business, and his Social Security check, of a hundred and five dollars a month. But he had a plan. In 1952, he had taught his chicken-frying process to Pete Harman, a good friend in Salt Lake City, and had let Harman begin serving the chicken in his restaurant. Harman’s business had increased greatly since then, apparently because of the chicken. News of Harman’s success reached other restaurant owners, and by 1956 six or eight of them had made informal franchise arrangements with the Colonel, under which they paid him four cents for every chicken they cooked with his process. So that year, at the age of sixty-six, the Colonel resolved to go into the franchise business in earnest. He put a couple of pressure cookers and a bag of seasoning into his car and hit the road. When he came across a likely-looking restaurant, he would go in and beg the owner to let him cook some chicken for the restaurant employees, after the noon rush or after closing time. If the employees were impressed with the chicken, the Colonel would offer to stay around for a couple of days and cook for the restaurant’s customers, with the understanding that a favorable reaction from the public would be followed by franchise negotiations. It was a slow and costly way to sign up franchisees. To offset his travel expenses, the Colonel got a free meal from friends in the business wherever he could, and often slept in the back seat of his car. He longed to land a prestige franchisee—the owner of a big restaurant, or one of his friends among the officers of the National Restaurant Association—but he couldn’t, at least during the early days of his business. “You couldn’t even talk to the big operator,” the Colonel says now. “Oh, no, he was sittin’ up smoking cigars. He had him a chef in the kitchen, and he knowed all about food that was to be known. That bird out in Portland who turned me down is still sittin’ downtown in his restaurant talking about the fifty-thousand-dollar chandelier he’s got in his cocktail room. But the fellow who took my chicken there, he’ll do seven million dollars in volume this year.”
The Colonel was eager for franchisees, but not desperate. He didn’t take on just anybody. “My wife and I went way over in Illinois once,” he recalled recently. “It was fifteen hundred miles, round trip. We got in there just after dark, and as soon as I looked at the daggone place I was afraid the trip was for nothing. I got out of the car and went around to see what the back end looked like. They had a glass door in the kitchen and I could see in, and I knew immediately I didn’t want to put the chicken in there. So I went back to the car and we come on home. The owner don’t know yet today that I ever did see that joint.” Within a couple of years, the Colonel was getting enough inquiries about franchises so that he could quit making such trips and insist that people come to him. There was plenty to keep him and his wife, Claudia, busy at home in Shelbyville, where he had moved in 1956. The Colonel did all of his own bookkeeping and other paperwork, and his wife handled the mixing, packing, and shipping of the spices and herbs. (The recipe for the blend of spices and herbs was not given to the franchisees, for fear that it would fall into the hands of competitors, and it still isn’t.) By 1960, there were perhaps two hundred outlets in this country and about half a dozen in Canada, and the Colonel’s profit before taxes was a hundred thousand dollars a year. Late in 1963, after less than eight years in the business, the Colonel had more than six hundred franchised outlets for his chicken in this country and Canada, which put him well ahead of the other fried-chicken operations, such as Chicken Delight and Chicken in the Rough. His annual profit before taxes was running around three hundred thousand dollars. He had seventeen employees, and he had put up an office building behind his house. He felt that the company was almost getting out of hand. Over the years, he had turned down several men who wanted to buy the company. But now, at seventy-four, he was well fixed financially, worried about what would become of the company after his death, and—though he didn’t realize it—ripe to be talked into selling, by the right man.
The right man turned out to be John Y. Brown, Jr., an aggressive young lawyer, then only twenty-nine years old. Brown was tall, handsome, bright, athletic, persuasive, and charming. The senior Brown was a prominent Kentucky lawyer and politician; but he was also the son of a tenant farmer, and he had taught John, Jr., the same devotion to hard work that Colonel Sanders had learned two generations earlier. At the age of sixteen, Brown was earning seven hundred dollars a month selling vacuum cleaners door to door. As a freshman at the University of Kentucky, he became a salesman for Encyclopædia Britannica and made five hundred dollars during his first weekend on the job. Working all through his years in college and law school, he eventually became a district sales manager for Britannica, supervising the work of thirty men and earning twenty-five thousand dollars a year. (He was on the golf and swimming teams in his spare time.) After graduation, he turned down a sales job that paid seventy-five thousand a year, in order to go into practice with his father. The young sales genius and the old chicken genius got together in June of 1963, when the Colonel asked Brown to go to work for him full time, as his attorney. Brown said no, and the two men fell into polite conversation about the Colonel’s favorite topic, fried chicken. Though the Colonel was well known throughout Kentucky, few people outside the food business realized the extent of his success. Brown was amazed to learn that the Colonel had hundreds of franchisees scattered around the country and in Canada. “When I heard that, I imagined that he had salesmen everywhere,” Brown recalled recently. “I said, ‘Well, Colonel, how many salesmen do you have out in the field?’ And he said, ‘Oh, we don’t solicit—we don’t believe in solicitation.’ I was flabbergasted. It was a one-man operation. The Colonel was the whole show. And, with my sales background, I began to think what you could do with this business if you had a really aggressive sales program.” Before they parted, they had agreed that Brown would take over the franchising of a barbecue chain the Colonel was planning to establish. Brown acquired financial backing from Jack Massey, a millionaire businessman in Nashville, and set about opening his first store and studying the barbecue business. But by October he had concluded that barbecue had only regional appeal and that the real money was in chicken. Accordingly, he and Massey decided that the thing to do was buy out the Colonel.
When the two men called on him in Shelbyville in October, 1963, and made their offer, the Colonel answered without hesitation that a sale was out of the question. He made mildly disparaging remarks about city slickers. Brown and Massey argued that the Colonel should have time to enjoy life now, and that if he died before selling out much of his estate would probably go for taxes. They offered him two million dollars, some stock in the proposed new company, and a continuing relationship with Kentucky Fried Chicken, as the company’s adviser and living image. They promised that quality control would be their byword, and they swore that no one would ever tamper with the chicken recipe. The Colonel knew that the proposal was logically sound, but somehow it didn’t seem right. Could a father sell his child? For the next several weeks, the Colonel meditated while Brown wooed him. They crisscrossed the country, counselling with daughters, grandchildren, nephews, preachers, bankers, accountants, franchisees—everyone who was close to the Colonel or would be affected by the sale. Finally, on January 6, 1964, the Colonel gave in and signed a contract. The deal was to be completed on March 6th, when the stock would be transferred and the Colonel would be given a down payment of five hundred thousand dollars. Under the terms of the contract, the Colonel retained Canada, and the new company got the rest of the world minus England, Florida, Utah, and Montana—four areas that the Colonel had already disposed of. In addition to his two million, the Colonel got a lifetime salary of forty thousand dollars a year (increased since then to seventy-five thousand); he turned down ten thousand shares of stock. The next two months were tense ones for Brown. As the new team prepared to take over, the Colonel was increasingly fidgety, and cross as could be. He had built up this company singlehanded, and now here he was turning it over to people from outside the food business—a lawyer and a financier, neither of whom knew a drumstick from a pig’s ear. Brown expected every day that the deal would fall through, but when March 6th came the Colonel gritted his teeth and took the money.
In addition to organizing a management team, recruited largely from among the franchisees, Brown took four steps shortly after the sale that proved important in the company’s subsequent growth. First, he began promoting the Colonel. The Colonel had made himself something of a minor celebrity years before, when he grew the mustache and goatee and adopted the all-white outfits, but he had never fully exploited his promotional possibilities. Brown felt that the possession of a symbol who was both authentic and alive—unlike Betty Crocker, Colonel Morton, or Aunt Jemima, for instance—was one of the company’s greatest assets. He hired a public-relations man in New York, and the Colonel soon was popping up on the “Tonight Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” and other network programs, where he more than held his own with the show-business pros. Second, Brown decided that the company must have a vigorous, unified advertising campaign, local and national. Last year, the company and the franchisees together spent more than twenty-four million dollars on advertising, compared to perhaps half a million spent during the year before the Colonel sold out. Third, Brown negotiated new contracts with the franchisees, under which the company received a percentage of franchisee sales instead of five cents (the Colonel had raised it from four) for every chicken cooked. This served to protect the company against inflation, and also gave it a cut on the sale of such accessory items as salads and beans. Finally, and very significantly, Brown halted the franchising of restaurants and insisted that all new outlets be take-home units, housed in freestanding buildings and standardized in appearance and menu. The take-home program had been started in 1959 by the Colonel and one of his daughters, Mrs. Margaret Adams, who owns the K.F.C. franchising operation in Florida. But throughout the Colonel’s regime most of the outlets had been restaurants, in which Kentucky Fried Chicken was just one item on the menu, and the few dozen exclusively take-home units had been storefronts rather than freestanding buildings. In the new freestanding buildings, Kentucky Fried Chicken would be more visible to the public, and the take-out format would suit the increasing number of American housewives who were often in a mood to eat dinner at home without cooking it themselves.
In the years since Brown put these measures into effect, the history of Kentucky Fried Chicken has been a tale of unblemished joy for almost everyone connected with the company at any level above gravy cook. It is a story that K.F.C. people never tire of hearing or repeating, and it can be told mostly in statistics. The number of K.F.C. outlets in the United States and abroad has increased from around six hundred to more than twenty-seven hundred—a five-to-one lead over the nearest chicken competitor—and is expected to reach four thousand by 1972. (Much of this expansion will be in New York, the last major domestic market still largely undeveloped by the company. Within five years, there will be two hundred K.F.C. outlets in the metropolitan area, twenty-eight of them in Manhattan.) Outlet sales are up from about thirty-five million dollars a year to six hundred million. Company (as opposed to franchisee) profits have increased from about two hundred thousand a year, after taxes, to about twelve million. The performance of K.F.C. stock has been such that a five-thousand-dollar investment made in 1964 is now worth three and a half million. In the past three or four years, K.F.C. has made millionaires of more than a hundred and twenty-five stockholders, franchisees, and company employees. For instance, Mrs. Maurine McGuire, who until recently was the company’s corporate secretary, is worth more than three million dollars. Mrs. Marge Allard, the credit manager, is worth about a million. Pete Harman, the Colonel’s first franchisee, has K.F.C. stock worth more than fifteen million dollars, and his hundred K.F.C. units in Utah and northern California have a sales volume of about twenty-five million a year. Brown, now thirty-six, draws a hundred thousand a year pocket money as president of the company, has a few million in the bank, and owns K.F.C. stock that is said to be worth fifty million. Among the three hundred employees who report to work at eight o’clock every morning at K.F.C. headquarters in Louisville, twenty-one are millionaires or multimillionaires, and several more are in the quarter- to half-million category.
Scores of competitors have appeared in recent years (Minnie Pearl Fried Chicken, Maryland Fried Chicken, Daniel Boone Fried Chicken), but Brown already speaks of them in the past tense. “They were too late” is about all he will say of any of them. He feels that K.F.C. is in too strong a position to be successfully challenged now, with its great financial resources and its overwhelming numerical superiority. He was encouraged in this view a couple of years ago, when one of the competitors, entertaining its franchisees at a national convention, served a meal catered by none other than the local Kentucky Fried Chicken man. “This is what’s killing us,” an executive of that company is reported to have told his people after they had eaten the competing product. “Now, what are we going to do about it?” Confident that its conquest of the domestic chicken market will soon be complete, K.F.C. is turning its attention to chicken sales abroad and to other fields at home. The foreign program is relatively new, but so far the Colonel’s chicken has seemed able to leap geographical, linguistic, and culinary barriers with ease. Folks in Mexico and Germany had never tasted Southern-fried chicken until recently, but the sales figures indicate that they are now as ravenous for it as folks in Tennessee and Kentucky. There are already seventy-nine foreign K.F.C. outlets, in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Australia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, and Thailand, and by late 1972 there should be at least two hundred and sixty additional outlets in those countries and in Bermuda, Aruba, Curaçao, Panama, Venezuela, the Virgin Islands, Austria, Belgium, and Italy. No outlet projections are yet available for them, but France, Sweden, Lebanon, and Switzerland are also on K.F.C.’s international list. At home, the new fields include roast beef, fish, and motels. The company’s beef line is still in the development stage, but is already being sold in a hundred Kentucky Roast Beef outlets. The company got into the fish business in 1968, when it bought, for twelve million dollars, Salt’s Enterprises, a chain of a hundred fish-and-chips stores on the West Coast. The company hopes to franchise as many as four hundred more beef outlets and a thousand more fish outlets by 1973, and it plans to have a dozen or more motels in operation by the end of this year. With these new projects in the works and others under consideration, and with the chicken business still growing, Brown thinks that Kentucky Fried Chicken will eventually become a billion-dollar-a-year company. He is fond of quoting figures that make this estimate seem conservative: In the smallest market areas—towns with populations of around ten thousand—K.F.C. outlets have an annual per-capita sales average of fifteen dollars. If K.F.C. outlets could attain that average among just half the United States population, they would have annual sales of one billion five hundred million dollars.
One of the interesting aspects of K.F.C.’s success is the uniformity of it at the level of the individual outlet. Impressive sales and profit totals might be amassed by a franchise network that numbered among its outlets a few failures and marginal operations as well as highly profitable ones, but that isn’t the K.F.C. pattern. Don Greer, a K.F.C. vice-president and former franchisee, said recently, “There are companies that have good units and bad units. K.F.C. has only good units. I know for a fact—without any doubt—that if I opened a store in a good location in, say, Cleveland, and ran it the way the company teaches you to, I would make money on it. Not just money—a lot of money. There simply isn’t any question. Now, that gives you an awful good feeling—knowing that you’re invincible.” Company officials claim that there has never been a failure among the twenty-seven hundred outlets. Very occasionally, they say, an outlet will make a mediocre showing, but that is always the fault of the management and not of the chicken; the answer is to revoke the franchise and find a more worthy franchisee. Few franchisees are foolish enough to let this happen, because the typical K.F.C. outlet has an annual gross of two hundred and forty thousand dollars and a net of forty-five or fifty thousand—a terrific profit margin in any business. (Some gross less, some more; there’s an outlet in Brooklyn that is expected to have a volume of a million a year.) Since many franchisees have several units—and a few have thirty or forty, or even more, and have set up their own corporations—it is easy to see how a number of them have become multimillionaires. K.F.C. units are so profitable, in fact, that the company is beginning to shift its emphasis from franchised units to company-owned units, and is buying out the franchisee corporations in the big-city markets. The parent company now owns and operates about five hundred outlets, which account for fifty per cent of company profits, and it hopes to acquire or build five hundred more.
Understandably, in light of the foregoing figures, K.F.C. franchises are in great demand. They are also hard to come by, because most of the country is already gone, and the rest of the world is going fast. There probably isn’t a city in the United States with a population of as much as twenty-five thousand that isn’t already franchised. Newcomers still have a chance to acquire towns in the ten-thousand range, but not a very good one, since established franchisees get first crack at every new market. Opening a K.F.C. unit costs from a hundred thousand dollars to a hundred and twenty-five thousand. However, with an investor who will put up the building and lease it to him, the new franchisee usually can get into business for around twenty-five thousand. This will include, among other things, the leasing of the cooking equipment from the company, insurance, advertising, utility deposits, licenses and permits, the initial food inventory, a subscription to Bucket (the company magazine), franchise fees, and five days of study at what the company calls K.F.C. University.
True to its promise to the Colonel, the K.F.C. management is fanatical about quality control. From the day a franchisee gets his franchise until the day he dies or sells out, he is nagged about doing things the K.F.C. way. His indoctrination begins in Louisville, at K.F.C. University, which is a K.F.C. outlet no different from any other except that it is equipped with a classroom. Enrollment for each five-day term at K.F.C.U. is limited to ten, so that each student can receive personal attention. During the first day on campus, the students hear a pep talk and see an inspirational film, “Portrait of a Legend,” about the life of Colonel Sanders. With a stirring vocal refrain (“How did he do it? Can you believe it?”) ringing in their ears, they emerge from the auditorium convinced that they’re part of something special, and eager to get in there and cook one for the Colonel. They need this motivation, because what follows is four days of rigorous crash courses in chicken-frying, equipment care, basic accounting, employer-employee relations, advertising, and—the fried-chicken game’s very foundation, richer in nuance than the outsider would ever suspect—shortening. The franchisee can pass his new knowledge on to his employees after he graduates, but he can also send some of them to K.F.C.U., at a cost of two hundred and fifty dollars per pupil. Back home, the franchisee remains under the eye of the company. For a couple of days before he opens his outlet and for a day or so afterward, one of the company’s twenty field representatives is on hand to see that things run smoothly. And the field man will be back, again and again. Every K.F.C. outlet is visited at least once every three months (but at irregular intervals, so that the visit is always a surprise) by a company man, who checks on everything from the tidiness of the lobby to the taste of the chicken, calls the franchisee’s attention to failings, and files a written report with the home office. Field men say that their biggest headache with kitchen employees is misguided experimentation. “You find a lot of inventors,” a K.F.C. executive said not long ago. “There are always guys who want to put their touch to the chicken. They’re undercooking, overcooking, changing some of the materials. When you get people saying ‘my chicken’ and ‘my gravy,’ you’ve got trouble. It’s the Colonel’s chicken. We just had a problem with a man who had switched to powdered eggs for the batter. He’d got a thick, heavy batter, and had messed up the product. He thought it was wonderful. He wanted the Colonel to visit him and see the new process. Can you imagine what the Colonel would have said to him? The Colonel would have given him a cussin’ he’d never forget!”
In addition to the advice they get from the field men, from Bucket, and in regional seminars staged by the company, the franchisees are barraged with memos from the K.F.C. engineering department, which has jurisdiction over all the technical aspects of equipment maintenance and the cooking process. For instance, Engineering Bulletin No. 116, issued December 1, 1967, revealed “Procedures and New Techniques to Provide Tender Loving Care to Shortening and Obtain a Quality Product.” This reflects the K.F.C. obsession with shortening—how it can best be filtered, how long it can be used, what heat does to it, and so on. K.F.C. executives say proudly that Art Pelster, the director of engineering, has “revolutionized” shortening and has delved deeper than anyone else into the problem of maintaining uniform quality in seasoning and flour. An electrical engineer who came to K.F.C. nearly four years ago from the aircraft industry, Pelster is quick to point out that he isn’t a cook and hasn’t altered the Colonel’s recipe. “Cooking is a combination of chemistry and thermodynamics, both of which you study in engine school, so any engineer should be able to understand the technical problems involved in it,” Pelster says. Right now—with the help of the research departments of Kraftco, Hunt-Wesson, and Durkee’s—Pelster is studying the effects of free iron and free copper in shortening, water, breading, and batter. Pepper is still giving him some problems, but he seems satisfied that the flour situation is under control. Pelster puts his research to use in writing and refining specifications for K.F.C. cooking ingredients. For instance, the flour preferred by K.F.C.—the most uniform in history, according to Pelster—is made only from wheat grown in certain “soft-wheat” regions of Illinois and Texas. (Franchisees are urged to buy this flour from the company, though they are allowed to buy other company-recommended, but less uniform, flour from local suppliers. They must buy their spices and herbs pre-mixed from the company, since they are not allowed to have the Colonel’s secret recipe. They can buy their shortening locally, but only from suppliers specified by the company. They buy their chickens locally, too, and are required to accept only non-frozen, government-inspected grade-A ones.) Another of Pelster’s concerns has been the development of a breading machine and a new cooker; together, Pelster says, they will make the chicken-frying process almost entirely automatic, thus reducing the labor involved and almost eliminating “the idiot factor.” Pelster thinks that this new equipment package will be the next-best thing to having the Colonel himself in every K.F.C. kitchen.
Some of the Colonel’s friends feel that it’s ironic, and perhaps even unfair, that so many franchisees and company executives have made more money out of Kentucky Fried Chicken than the Colonel has. They point out that if the Colonel had taken the ten thousand shares of K.F.C. stock that were offered to him when he sold the company, he would have made another seven million or so. Neither the Colonel nor the company will confirm it, but one rumor has it that Brown’s partner, Massey, didn’t want the Colonel to be a major stockholder in the company. In this account of the sale, Massey is said to have argued that taking the shares would somehow cost the Colonel a tax break on the cash part of the deal. In any case, the Colonel did not take the shares, and he appears to be content with the deal he made. He says that he has plenty of money to last him the rest of his life, and that he has done all right. Besides the two million dollars and the seventy-five-thousand-dollar salary he got in the sale of the company, he has investments in some of the franchisee corporations and in a fish-franchise business (not Salt’s Enterprises). The bonus that the company will pay him for his help in developing the Kentucky Roast Beef line could be worth as much as half a million. Col. Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken, Ltd., of Canada, which he retained when he sold the American company, pays him a second salary, of sixty thousand a year. (His and Mrs. Sanders’ shares in the company are now held in trust and will eventually be divided between an American charitable foundation and a Canadian one.)
And, in addition to these investments and salaries, the Colonel has his own restaurant—the Colonel Sanders Kentucky Inn, a big Colonial-style place adjacent to his home in Shelbyville. This fine establishment, which offers delicious food at moderate prices, might well be regarded by the Colonel as a haven and a solace when he’s not on the road. But the old perfectionist often seems to feel, instead, that the Inn is simply one more institution offering redundant opportunity for incompetents to do their stuff. During a lunch at the Inn recently, the Colonel took a guest on a tour of the various dining rooms and the kitchen before the food was served. He looked to be more suspicious than proud. In the kitchen, he lifted every pot lid, sampled the salads, and registered a couple of small complaints with the help. Seeing the unfamiliar face of a new employee, he stopped before the young man and stared him hard in the eye. “Son, are you any ’count?” he asked. “Yes, sir!” the young man answered. “Well,” the Colonel said doubtfully, “I sure hope so.” The lunch consisted of vegetable soup, salad, hot biscuits and honey (in a bowl instead of a little plastic container), country ham, red-eye gravy, seven vegetables, coffee, and homemade apple pie. The Colonel’s guest—a native of the South who now lives in New York, in miserable exile from the tasty fresh vegetables of his youth—was close to fainting with pleasure over the perfectly seasoned stringbeans and the fine gravy. The Colonel, who was having only a sandwich, inquired about the gravy. “Mind if I try it?” he said. He broke a biscuit in half and poured some gravy over it from the guest’s gravy bowl. He took two thoughtful bites, then pushed the biscuit and gravy away, sad but not surprised. “Ain’t fit for my dogs,” he said.