Food roadies can enjoy a mouthful as they get an eyeful about one of America’s greatest rags-to-riches stories with a stop at Sanders Café & Museum, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, where charismatic Col. Harland Sanders worked his magic.  

Now eight decades after he perfected his finger-lickin’ good fried fowl, the bird, flavored with 11 herbs and spices, is sold at 22,621 KFC locations in 136 countries.

The Corbin KFC is a working restaurant where the dining room doubles as a shrine to Sanders and guests act as their own guides. Admission to the museum is free but almost everyone who stops to get their fill of the Colonel’s story also fills up on chicken, biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy.   

“I can’t tell you that much about Col. Sanders, but I can tell you how to fry chicken. We fry chicken all day long,” said café manager Tena Brock, a 25-year employee with KFC, who has been at this site nine months. 

She shares that none of the employees ever met the Colonel, who died 39 years ago, and it’s probable that most of them had not even been born then. 

“It’s a new experience,” she says of serving diners in a restaurant that is a historic site. “Everybody coming in is not coming to just eat and walk back out but to enjoy seeing what all is here. We get lots of questions and lots of pictures are taken.  

“We get people from Australia to China. We had two tour buses today and two more are coming tomorrow. We have about 700 to 800 customers every day and more on weekends.”

The museum’s history

The Corbin KFC was purchased by Linda and John R. Neal in 1973. They began restoring the restaurant in 1988 and reopened it as the Harland Sanders Café and Museum on Sept. 9, 1990, the 100th anniversary of the Colonel’s birth. The café continues to be owned and operated by JRN, Inc., headquartered in Columbia, Tenn. 

Brock shared that another remodeling of the place will begin soon, and plans include transforming the Colonel’s house out back into a bed-and-breakfast.

Quizzed as to what she thought the Colonel would think of the site, she said, “I would hope he would be pleased with it. There is lots of stuff still here that is original.” 

Among the larger displays are the vintage kitchen (where he first fried his chicken in skillets), the Colonel’s office and a replica of a motel room from Sanders Motor Court back in the day. There are glass cases overflowing with Kentucky Fried Chicken memorabilia from a chicken pressure cooker near identical to “Bertha,” his beloved pressure cooker, to a political poster depicting Sanders when he ran for the Kentucky State Senate. 

Also cool to see is a Col. Sanders Halloween mask and a booklet of 20 of his favorite recipes. A photo op comes by sitting on a bench next to a life-size version of the Colonel in his guise as a Southern gentleman with his moustache, goatee, white suit and cane.

Soldier, lawyer, ferryman

The man, whose face became a fast-food icon, was born in Henryville, Ind., the oldest of three children. After his father died when he was 6, he was left to care for his siblings while his mother went to work. He learned to cook from his mom.

Dropping out of school in the seventh grade, he worked on local farms and was a street car conductor before joining the Army at 16 and serving in Cuba for several months. Later, he labored as a fireman on a locomotive and a section hand laying track, practiced law, sold insurance, operated a ferry and sold tires. 

Sanders married his first wife, Josephine, when he was 18 and trained her to do the cooking. In “Col. Harland Sanders: The Autobiography of the Original Celebrity Chef,” he recalled, “When it came to teaching her, I cooked what I knew. Mama had shown me how to cook some things and recipes had always appealed to me. I memorized them or clipped them out of papers or magazines. Then when I got married, I tried them out on my family. I knew how to do country-style cooking, how to cook vegetables and how to season them. … To tell the truth, I cooked just about everything a country cook ever put on the table.

In the late 1920s, Sanders operated a gas station in Nicholasville, Ky., and when the Shell Company offered to build him a rent-free station in Corbin, he moved his family here in 1930 and ran his Sanders’ Servistation and Café on U.S. 25, also known as the Dixie Highway. A year later he shifted the business across the road and created a small dining area where he would serve his home-cooked meals for famished travelers.

Memoir shares early times

He wrote in his autobiography that he began serving travelers on his family dining room table: “Millionaires and truck drivers all ate off that same table. They were all the same to me. They were just people who wanted a good meal. I’d cook up supper for our family of five, Josephine and our three children. Then we’d stall on eating for a while, figuring maybe we’d sell some of our food. Sometimes we’d sell one meal, sometimes we’d sell it all. If we did, I’d start cooking all over again. A typical meal I served then would include whatever the meat or entrée was that day. Then maybe I’d add creamed butter beans and possibly spinach, collard or turnip greens.”

In 1939, a fire destroyed his eatery and a portion of his motel. He rebuilt Sanders Café and reopened on the Fourth of July, 1940. Later he recalled, “When I rebuilt, I didn’t intend to build the restaurant. It would save the trouble of hiring waitresses and being sure we had a cook in the kitchen who was as careful about the quality of the good as I wanted him to be. But our customers wouldn’t have it that way, so I thought to myself, you can sleep a man only once in 24 hours, but you can feed him three times. My future from that point on was to be in food and food service, not in the motel business.”  

He revealed more details about his most famous dish in his book, sharing “I believe that fried chicken is North America’s Hospitality Dish. I spell all those words with capital letters. I don’t care whether it’s a king, a preacher, or a potentate who comes to see you, if you give him good fried chicken with mashed potatoes, chicken cracklin’ gravy, and hot biscuits and vegetables, you’re giving him the best the American table can offer. At first, I fried my chicken in an iron skillet the way Mama had always fried it. She had used lard. My wife had used Crisco. I used a popular vegetable shortening at the time.” 

The Colonel had concocted his fried chicken in the 1930s with a spice recipe that was a guarded secret. That recipe of 11 herbs and spices was later trademarked as Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken and perfected in the Sanders Café, thanks to the help of a pressure cooker.

Upon hearing about this “new-fangled thing,” he bought eight of them and began to wonder if he could fry chicken in them. After studying how they worked, he modified the process by installing specially designed pressure release valves. That allowed chicken to be removed immediately after cooking and resulted in him being able to prepare chicken in nine minutes rather than the 30 minutes it took to fry in a skillet. With an eight-quart pressure cooker he nicknamed “Bertha,” the Colonel arrived at fried-chicken nirvana.

He licensed his first franchise in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952. The deal gave the franchisee the right to use the Kentucky Fried Chicken name, his spices and his pressure-frying technology. In turn Sanders got a nickel per chicken. 

Financial woes forced the entrepreneur to sell his Sanders Restaurant and Motel in 1956 at auction so that he could pay taxes and bills. Thus, he and his second wife lived on his Social Security check and franchise income. 

Second career at 66

He recalled of that period, “As I said, starting out all over again at 66 didn’t scare me. I’d been in rags before. I’d been just as low and hungry as a body could be, and it didn’t bother me to think I’d hit the bottom again. But I must admit that I never thought the project I began so late in my life would get as big as it did. However, the fried chicken business multiplied and got bigger and bigger until at last I put myself on a salary of $30,000 a year and dropped my Social Security check.”

By 1964 Sanders had sold more than 600 franchises. That year he sold KFC to Jack Massey and John Y. Brown Jr. for $2 million. He could have called it quits but became the goodwill ambassador and commercial spokesman for KFC and worked for charities and children’s hospitals. Among his biggest beneficiaries were the March of Dimes and the Salvation Army.

In summarizing his success, he stated simply, “My main trade secret is I’m not afraid of hard, back-cracking work. After all, I was raised on a farm where hard work is the way of life.”

The fried-chicken gentleman died Dec. 16, 1980, of leukemia at 90 years of age. His body lay in state at the Kentucky State Capitol before he was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.

HARLAND SANDERS CAFE AND MUSEUM

The Harland Sanders Café is a KFC restaurant — which Col. Harland Sanders operated from 1940-1956 —located in Corbin, Ky. The birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken is a working restaurant with displays, photos, memorabilia and original items sprinkled across the dining room; thus it is mostly a self-guided tour. The best time to visit would be before or after normal lunch and dinner hours. There is no admission charge. The site was restored in 1989-90. Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Location: 688 U.S. Highway 25 W., Corbin, Ky. Phone: 606-528-2163.

WHO’S THAT COLONEL?

Over the past few years, KFC has used a number of actors to portray a live-action Col. Sanders in TV commercials. The celebrities include Darrell Hammond, Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton, Rob Riggle, Vincent Kartheiser, Billy Zane, Rob Lowe, Reba McEntire, Jason Alexander, Craig Fleming, Ray Liotta, Sean Astin, Peter Weller (as the voice of RoboCop) and Chester Cheetah. 

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