Wednesday, August 21, 2002

KFC great American success story

By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — Pete Harman was building a successful burger business in Utah when a white-haired, goateed acquaintance from Kentucky showed up unexpectedly and offered to cook a fried chicken dinner.

        Colonel Harland Sanders had a business proposition. He was certain that one helping of his specialty chicken, coated with a blend of 11 herbs and spices, would persuade Mr. Harman to add chicken to his menu.

        Mr. Harman was hooked after a few bites. Soon, his restaurant was promoting the dish, called Kentucky Fried Chicken.

        The chicken became an instant hit in that August of 1952 as customers lined up outside the Salt Lake City eatery to take home dinners by the bucketful. For $3.50, they got 14 pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, rolls and gravy.

        From humble beginnings, Kentucky Fried Chicken became a fast-food staple and its originator one of the world's most recognizable faces.

        Fifty years later, the chain built on Mr. Sanders' salesmanship and homestyle cooking boasts nearly 12,000 restaurants worldwide generating sales of nearly $10 billion a year.

        “It's really one of the great American entrepreneurial stories,” said John Y. Brown Jr., who took the company's reins from the colonel.

        For Mr. Sanders, success was a long time coming. He drifted from job to job, including stints as a railroad fireman, insurance salesman, steamboat ferry operator, tire salesman and service station operator. He perfected his chicken and the cooking technique in the late 1930s while serving hungry customers who stopped at his service station — now a historic landmark in Corbin, Ky. The title “colonel” was an honorific bestowed on Mr. Sanders by a Kentucky governor.

        He decided to take his chicken from a handful of local restaurants to a national stage at the age of 62, a time when most people are thinking of retiring.

        He crisscrossed the country by car, his cookware and herbs and spices in the back, to whip up batches of chicken for restaurateurs and their employees. The demonstrations sealed many handshake deals in which restaurant operators agreed to pay Mr. Sanders a nickel for each chicken sold.

        By 1964, Mr. Sanders had signed up more than 600 franchised outlets when he sold the company for $2 million to a group headed by Jack Massey and Mr. Brown, who later became governor of Kentucky.

        Kentucky Fried Chicken took flight under Mr. Brown and his partners. By 1971, when they sold the company for $285 million to Heublein Inc., it had more than 3,500 franchised and company-owned restaurants.

        Mr. Brown attributed the company's success to its emphasis on take-home dinners that resembled the kind mother made, a revolutionary concept in the restaurant industry.

        The company also capitalized on Mr. Sanders' popularity. The colonel always looked the part of the Southern gentleman, wearing his trademark white suit and black string tie while pitching chicken or dishing out homespun wisdom on television shows.

        Mr. Sanders stayed on as company spokesman, promoting the chicken in folksy television commercials, until his death in 1980 at the age of 90.

        KFC changed hands a few more times. It became a subsidiary of R.J. Reynolds Industries — later RJR Nabisco — when Heublein sold it in 1982. PepsiCo acquired KFC from RJR Nabisco in 1986 for about $840 million.

        In 1997, PepsiCo's three fast-food restaurant chains — KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — spun off to form Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. This year, Louisville-based Tricon changed its name to Yum! Brands Inc.


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