The Harland Sanders Museum and Cafe in Corbin, Kentucky is where KFC was born. We visited to learn the KFC Founder Story, and got some “finger lickin’ good” chicken in the process.
Fried chicken is a global phenomenon, and KFC is at the forefront. Today KFC is the world’s most popular chicken restaurant chain with over 21,000 outlets in 130(!) countries. That’s a lotta chicken! The name “KFC” was derived from “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” which gives you some indication of its humble beginnings. As foodie travelers we love learning about foods unique to an area, such as the chargrilled hot dogs in Buffalo or the quirky Kokorec sandwich in Istanbul. Here we have an opportunity to see the roots of an internationally beloved food, where a chicken empire began . . .
Many people might think this is a story about the first KFC franchise (that was actually in Utah-more on that later). Nope, this story is more complex, and more historic, than that. It’s a tale of good food, entrepreneurship, interstate highways (seriously!), and yet more entrepreneurship.
The KFC Founder Story (Part 1)
Flashback to the 1930s. Harland Sanders is a good ol’ Kentucky boy who opens a roadside restaurant in Corbin, KY. He names it “Sanders Cafe,” serving local favorites such as country ham, biscuits, pecan pie, and of course, fried chicken. Despite a fire that destroyed the original building, business is good. Soon Sanders has a motel and gas station alongside his rebuilt restaurant.
The food attracts attention. The Sanders Cafe gets mentioned in the prestigious travel guide Adventures in Good Cooking. The book, written by traveling-salesman-turned-travel-writer Duncan Hines, was the YELP! of its day. (Hines would eventually go on to start a food company, becoming famous for his cake mixes. Yep, that Duncan Hines.)
The Harland Sanders Museum & Cafe
The motel (really a “motor court,” it was the 1940s after all) and the gas station are now gone. But fortunately the Sanders Cafe is still standing. A modern KFC counter was built at one end of the old cafe, but most of the original fixtures of the building are intact. Guests order at the counter, then eat their meal in the original Sanders Cafe dining room. The original kitchen, office, and a sample dining table are now set up as displays that surround the dining room. There’s even a mock-up of a motel room, which Sanders had installed to convince people to stay in his motor court.
Alongside the modern KFC counter are glass cases housing displays of early artifacts from the Sanders Cafe, as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken memorabilia. Visitors can pose with a statue of “the Colonel” on a park bench and marvel at an example of his signature white suit. (Spoiler alert: he was a little “stocky.” I guess a lifetime of eating fried chicken will do that to you 😋) A walk around the Harland Sanders Museum & Cafe gives a visitor tremendous insight on how a simple roadside restaurant became a worldwide chicken empire.
Harland Sanders: a successful entrepreneur
Even in his early days, Harland Sanders was more than just a guy with a roadside restaurant. He was a clever businessman, a man whose creative ideas made him a successful entrepreneur. Sanders insisted on cleanliness, which meant the kitchen of his restaurant had to be painted white (and we’re talkin’ the walls, ceiling, with a white tiled floor). This way he could tell at a glance if that it was clean–any dirt or dust would be obvious in an instant. He also took thinks one step further by cutting openings between the kitchen and the dining room. Now his customers could see how clean the kitchen was as well. (The open kitchen concept would eventually become a standard at KFC around the globe.)
Sanders was even more clever when it came to promoting his motel business. In the early 1940s it was common practice for the lady of the house to inspect a motel room when her family traveled. In a bold move, Sanders had a replica of one of his motel rooms built right inside the restaurant. This gave him a perfect opportunity to “up-sell” his cafe customers on potentially booking a room for the night. And to really seal the deal, he put the entrance to the ladies’ room inside the mock-up motel room, so his restaurant customers had to pass right through the motel room to use the facilities. Now that’s marketing!
Chicken innovation: cook it QUICK!
Sanders had a restaurant that was getting great reviews. His creative marketing (aka “the motel room in the restaurant” campaign) was working and bringing in business. But he was limited by a simple fact of the kitchen: it took a long time to make fried chicken.
Traditional fried chicken is made in a skillet of oil–preferably one o’ them good ol’ cast iron skillets. It also takes about 35 minutes to cook. If you’re making it at home, that’s not a big deal. But a restaurant needs to be able to turn out food faster than that. Harland Sanders recognized this and figured out a better way.
In the late 1930s pressure cookers became popular as a method of cooking foods more quickly. Traditionally they were used with water-based foods, making vegetables, soups, etc. After seeing a demonstration of a Presto pressure cooker in 1939, the wheels started turning in Sanders’ brain. He fiddled around with the device, eventually developing a method of pressure frying chicken. When you’re exploring the Harland Sanders Museum & Cafe, you can see one of the actual Presto pressure cookers the Colonel used. His method reduced the 35-minute cooking process down to just 9 minutes. With faster cooking times he could serve his customers faster, AND he could serve more customers each day–a win for everyone.
The first KFC franchise
Life is good in Corbin, Kentucky for Harland Sanders. He’s developing a regional reputation for his fried chicken, but he’s interested in expanding further. In 1952 Sanders convinces Pete Harman, a restauranteur in Salt Lake City, to serve his chicken. In exchange for a royalty, Sanders teaches Harman his pressure-frying technique and supplies the “11 secret herbs and spices” that have become the chicken’s signature.
The relationship works well; the chicken is popular and Harman adds some innovation of his own . . . including the “brand.” Not knowing what to call the new addition to his restaurant menu, he reasoned:
“It’s fried chicken, and the recipe is from Kentucky. Let’s call it Kentucky Fried Chicken.”Pete Harman, the first KFC franchisee
And so the restaurant in Salt Lake City becomes the first KFC franchise. Harman has good success with his new menu addition and word spreads. Over the next few years Colonel Sanders signs up a few other franchisees with similar arrangements. In 1953 Sanders rejects an offer to sell his business for $164,000. Why would he? Things are humming along nicely.
The interstate highway: a problem for Sanders Cafe
Then disaster strikes . . . in the form of progress. In the mid 1950s President Eisenhower signs into law The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. This act will fund the building of the Interstate Highway System. Interstate 75, which will run north/south through Kentucky, will be 2 miles east of the Sanders Cafe. Now the Colonel’s restaurant, which for 20 years has been on the main road, will be off the beaten path.
Suddenly the Sanders Cafe isn’t such a rising star. Traffic past the restaurant dwindles, as do fried chicken sales. Sanders tries to sell the business, but gets no takers. The Sanders Cafe, which was getting unsolicited offers just three years earlier, is finally sold in 1956 at auction for $75,000–at a loss. Sanders, at this point 66 years old, is nearly broke and living on his meager Social Security checks, and a small bit of money coming in from his 6-8 franchisees. He could have just retired . . . most men would have. Our Kentucky Colonel is down . . . but definitely not out.
The KFC Founder Story (part 2)
Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. Harland Sanders figured if he had a handful of restaurants selling his chicken, he must be on to something. So he dusted himself off, put some pressure cookers and spice packets in his car, and hit the road to find more franchisees. No fancy sales pitches, just the Colonel cooking up chicken for folks. And he was picky–if he didn’t like the way a restaurant looked, he passed it by.
“For me, it wasn’t a matter of giving up, it was just a problem of what to do next.”Colonel Harland Sanders
And that chicken was good . . . “finger lickin’ good.” Slowly but surely Colonel Sanders signed on more and more franchisees. He kept the business lean: he and his wife ran it out of their home in Shelbyville, KY. Harland did all his own bookkeeping, while his wife took care of mixing and shipping the herb/spice blend. (They kept the blend a secret to maintain their competitive edge.)
By 1964 Harland Sanders had over 600 franchisees in the US and Canada. At the ripe old age of 74 it was time to think of selling the business. Sanders sold the US business (he retained rights in Canada) for $2 million (about $17 million today). Not bad for an old guy who was almost broke just eight years earlier. Sanders also received a lifetime salary, partly to be the “face” of the business. This proved to be a stroke of genius for the new investment group that purchased the company.
Over 50 years later, Harland Sanders is still the face of Kentucky Fried Chicken. (The company officially changed the name to “KFC” in 1991.) And that chicken is still “finger lickin’ good.” You can find it at over 21,000 restaurants all over the globe. Call me old fashioned, but it still tastes best at the Sanders Cafe in Corbin, KY.
Visiting Sanders Museum & Cafe: the details
Address: 688 Hwy 25, Corbin, KY 40701
Location: Approximately 90 miles south of Lexington, KY and 90 miles north of Knoxville, TN. It’s about 2 miles east of Interstate 75
Hours: 10am to 9pm, 7 days/week
We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our free travel newsletter here.