Book Excerpt: How Kentucky Fried Chicken Became KFC

As part of our Food & Drink Week, we present to you this chapter from Josh Ozersky’s book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream. It tells the story of how Colonel Harlan Sander’s business went from a fried chicken restaurant and recipe to a handshake-secured franchise to a global fast food behemoth. 

Also, you can listen to America’s Test Kitchen’s Christopher Kimball talk about the Colonel with Ozersky here.

Kentucky Fried Chicken Inc.

John Y. Brown Jr., the former governor of Kentucky, is invariably described as “Kennedyesque.” The appellation isn’t that far off, or at least it wasn’t in Brown’s youth. Handsome, charismatic, a famous playboy and bon vivant, and a natural in the game of politics, he also inherited a potent political legacy: Brown’s father, John Sr., had been a major force in Kentucky politics for two generations. John Jr. got around to taking the top position in the state, from 1979 to 1983, and even considered a run at the presidency—but not before creating Kentucky Fried Chicken Inc., marrying Miss America, owning three professional basketball teams, and creating a legendary reputation as a high-stakes poker player and ladies’ man. He liked to have a nip of Kentucky bourbon now and again. He was on easy terms with the most powerful people in every sector of society. He was cultivated and genteel and had led a smooth and sheltered life as one of the most privileged young people in a famously plutocratic state.1 No man could have been more alien to Harland Sanders.

It seems unlikely that the seventy-three-year-old Colonel, therefore, would have chosen so willingly to go into business with Brown, who had no prior experience in business or restaurants. “I knew that he felt I had led a different sort of life than he had, that I came from a different background,” Brown later said. “But he liked me.”2 There seems no doubt that the Colonel was attracted to, and even a little intimidated by, Brown’s social ease, assurance, and gentility, all qualities Sanders lacked to one degree or another. The two had been introduced before the Colonel came to him for legal counsel; appropriately enough, the two bluegrass titans first met at the Kentucky Derby in 1963, with the Colonel resplendent in his whites and Brown, sportsman and scion, as in his element as any man could ever hope to be.

When Brown did come to talk business with the Colonel, he paid court the right way, visiting him in the big white house in Shelbyville. Brown was a natural salesman, too. He had an effortless gift for getting people to buy things, from vacuum cleaners to encyclopedias, and it didn’t take him long to realize that he wanted to sell himself to the Colonel. “He showed me a big pile of checks that his franchisees had sent him—he had over six hundred by then—and they were made out for a hundred, two hundred, three hundred dollars. I had no idea there was that much money in his chicken business.”3 Brown’s first thought was about neither spice mixes nor pressure cookers. “What kind of a sales force do you have?” he asked.

“Hell, I got no sales force,” the Colonel snapped back. “If people want to sell my chicken, they can come to me now. I don’t have to go to them.” Brown remembers, “I said to myself, ‘Brown, you better pull up a chair and sit in.’” Given the obvious need each man had for the other, they ought to have joined forces then and there, the Colonel providing the product, the image, and the authenticity, and Brown incorporating the business into the matrix of modern business practice and cutting himself in for a hefty slice in the process. The two men were perfect partners, and there was deep warmth between them that persisted for many years, even in the Colonel’s irascible eighties. But Sanders wasn’t ready to part with his newfound business so painfully earned. Instead, they decided to open a barbecue restaurant together. “The Colonel was still pretty possessive about his chicken business, but he never stopped thinking about new projects,” Brown says, “and he had it in his head that he wanted to open a barbecue. So we opened a barbecue.”4

The barbecue business is incredibly challenging, requiring major capital investment in all kinds of specialty equipment, and Brown borrowed money from Jack Massey, a Louisville investor. The Porky Pig House, as it was called, went nowhere fast: as the Colonel had pointed out in colorful language, Brown knew nothing about restaurants and now was trying to run a complicated, capital-heavy business on a shoestring. But he had access to money; that was what he brought to the deal. So when the Colonel complained to Brown that he was having trouble keeping up with the costs of supplying pressure cookers, seasoned flour, paper products, and the like to all his franchisees spread around the continent, Brown took Massey up to Shelbyville to see the Colonel. It was now 1964, a year into the barbecue business. The idea was that Brown and Massey would buy into Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then the Colonel would have access to some serious operating capital, and they would be in on the ground floor of an aggressively expanding business.

The Colonel, having never been really successful as a businessman, having been in debt a good part of his life, and having a bone-deep distaste for people who had never done the kind of hard work that he had mastered at age twelve, was skeptical. He saw all “moneymen” as swindlers, usurers, and was notably gruff, even for him. He acted strangely uneasy. Brown remembers that he was “constantly muttering, pulling his moustache, stuff like that.” The young man couldn’t figure out what it was all about: “He said he needed money, and I was bringing a person to him who could help. It was very upsetting.” After much delay, the Colonel finally came out with it: “Let me tell you right now,” he said, “there ain’t no slick-talking sonofabitch going to come in here and buy my company out from under me. Nosir!”5

Both men were shocked. Neither had even considered the idea of buying Kentucky Fried Chicken. Brown had just borrowed a lot of money for the Porky Pig House; he was still thinking about getting the place profitable so as to pay it back. Massey had come along to Shelbyville as a favor to Brown, whom he considered something of a protégé. The idea of going into the fried chicken business was the furthest thing from their minds, or so they claimed afterward.

Harland Sanders, on the other hand, had a lot of good reasons for selling Kentucky Fried Chicken. Brown came around to the idea pretty quickly and made haste to suggest it to him over the next few weeks with varying degrees of gentleness. He was in his seventies now, an old man; shouldn’t he enjoy his golden years, hmm? Hadn’t he earned the right to relax a little? And then, what about the business? If he left it in the hands of the franchisees, as was his plan up until his odd outburst, the loose network of restaurants would inevitably fracture in discord. Neither of the Colonel’s daughters was interested in taking over the business, and of course Harland Jr. was many years in the grave now.

Beyond all this, there was a single reason above all the others, and it was this one that carried the day. He simply wasn’t able to run the business by himself. He could sell and promote anything under the sun, and he could make chicken like a champ. But he was no businessman, not at this age and not on this scale. “I’d been in business for myself for more than thirty-five years at one thing or another,” the Colonel later wrote, looking back at the fateful decision. During that time I’d seen successes turn to failures for reasons that were out of my control. Now I had built up the most successful business I ever had singlehanded—startin’ from scratch when I was sixty-five. And that had taken only nine years.

Why the hell am I sellin’ out now? I asked myself.

Then I realized how the popularity of Kentucky Fried Chicken was growin’ right over me and mashin’ me flat.6

The Colonel took his time making up his mind. He was genuinely ambivalent, even with all the good reasons Brown had given him. There would be no going back or starting over after he made the sale. A lifelong believer in the gospel of work, he would have no real reason for being, or so he feared, if he sailed. (At the age of eighty-eight he testified before a congressional subcommittee, telling them that “retiring is the awfullest thing in the world.”7)He temporized, delayed, had momentary changes of heart and just as swift reversals, all while Brown and Massey, who had been persuaded by Brown that Kentucky Fried Chicken was a gold mine, twisted in the wind. “It was a stressful time, believe me,” Brown says now.8

In many ways it was a good deal for the Colonel. He would get $2 million in cash, more than he ever dreamed of, plus $40,000 a year to work as a goodwill ambassador, “the living symbol of Kentucky Fried Chicken.” (Later this would be upped to $75,000.) He didn’t take any stock, for tax reasons, but that didn’t bother him; he now had more money than he could ever spend. Cash was what he preferred anyway, cash on the barrelhead: $500,000 up front, payable within two months, and the rest paid over a five-year period. In other ways, the deal wasn’t that good. The Colonel, accustomed to a lifetime of handshake arrangements and leaving “the paperwork” for later, had agreed, he thought, to a sale in principal and had a few lawyer friends look at the contract. After he signed it, he found that the money wasn’t as amazing as he thought; in fact, given the payout schedule, it was less than he was making before the sale. His salary for a busy full-time job as the face of the brand was a relative pittance, and the company would even get to keep his residual royalties! But there was nothing he could do. “Father had only himself to blame,” his daughter Margaret would later say. “Father’s hands were tied, and his lousy salary was hardly enough to compensate for the exhaustion he experienced from flying around the world making commercials.”9 Worse still, he had signed away the right to use his own name and image on any other business for the rest of his life.

The problem was that the Colonel wasn’t just making decisions on behalf of himself but rather his “family” of franchisees—a term he actually took seriously. Certainly there could be no sale without speaking to Pete Harman and Kenny King of Cleveland, the two biggest and earliest franchisees. To his surprise and possible dismay, they were all in favor of it. The major franchisees were going to get big chunks of stock, and the Colonel let himself believe that they would watch out for the other franchisees and the quality of the product, having been chicken men themselves, unlike shady moneymen who never knew what it was to mop up a restaurant at six in the morning.

The deal finally got done on February 18, 1964. The Colonel, in one of his most expansive moments, made this written promise to Brown and Massey:

It is my intention to deliver to you the best and most conscientious service I can render, consistent with my health, as long as I remain on your payroll . . . the business is yours to operate as you please, and I will never be critical to anyone other than you two about how you operate it. Anything that I suggest to you would be merely a suggestion, and no hard feelings on my part if they are not taken.10

There’s no question that Sanders believed this at the time, but no one with even a passing knowledge of his character could ever have believed that he could abide by it. This was a man who thought nothing of visiting strangers’ homes and running into the kitchen with a drill to bore holes in the gas range, a man who had made a lifelong habit of swearing at employees, his own and those of unlucky restaurant owners, and knocking any nearby surface with the end of his cane to indicate his displeasure at imperfectly cooked scrambled eggs. There was no way that the presence of this temperamental, stubborn, opinionated individual was going to be easy to control; the question was merely how volatile an asset the Colonel would be for the newly formed corporation.

And make no mistake: he was their chief asset. As Brown says, “The Colonel wasn’t just the face of the company; he was the company. I used to tell people inside the company, there’s two reasons we’re all rich: because the Colonel came up with a good product, and because he looked good on that sign.”11 For Brown, the Colonel was more than the face of the franchise; he was almost mythic. “He wasn’t just a trademark. He wasn’t just somebody that an adman had made up, like Aunt Jemima, Colonel Morton, or Betty Crocker. He was a real, live human being and a colorful, attractive, persuasive one. My job was to get him before the American people and let him sell his own product.”12

With the Colonel established as a living mascot, a flesh-and-blood Uncle Ben, Brown was able to mobilize his peerless sales ability to get more and more franchisees signed up. Brown was done with having Kentucky Fried Chicken be an item on someone else’s menu. Now every restaurant would be a freestanding one with identical signage, architecture, and maximized efficiency. And every one would be built from the ground up with an eye toward take-out. This innovation was currently powering McDonald’s to unheard-of success, the hamburger company having ridden the postwar baby boom to glory. The prosperity World War II brought to the country produced an unprecedented demographic explosion, and an expanding “crabgrass frontier” of new suburbs was coming into being. Those suburbs were largely occupied by young families of exactly the kind that might need a bucket of chicken for dinner one night a week or even more than one night a week.

Another thing about these families was that they all had cars; that was how they could live in the suburbs, why suburbs existed. The new Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets that Brown had in mind would, like Pete Harman’s operations in Utah, be totally dedicated not just to fried chicken but to the Colonel’s brand. They would feature the Colonel’s “mug” as the central visual identity of the place, with every element from a red-and-white color scheme to a mansard roof with a rotating bucket overhead dedicated to beaming his image to everyone within visual range. But unlike Harman’s restaurants, they wouldn’t be primarily urban affairs catering to a dine-in clientele. The Colonel’s daughter Margaret, who owned a hereditary title to all franchises in Florida, started the first one, in Jacksonville, and it did so well that it became the template for future operations. Why not? It was so cheap to have a take-out restaurant: no waiters, no big building, no dishwashers, no linen—just chicken in boxes and buckets, and plenty of it.

Now the Colonel was rich at last, rich beyond his wildest imaginings, and he had a license to spend all his time “coloneling.” The white suit went on for good sometime in the early ’60s. Slowly but surely the country began to learn about him. Duncan Hines notwithstanding, he wasn’t well known on a national level, not yet. Kentucky Fried Chicken, for one thing, was still a regional chain. For another, there were still no plans to start doing national TV advertising. At first, there was no paid advertising at all. The Colonel got it for free by appearing on talk shows.

In the Colonel’s first national television appearance he was still so obscure that he was chosen as the Mystery Guest on a 1963 episode of What’s My Line?, a popular quiz show of the 1950s and ’60s. The panelists on the show were allowed to pose a certain number of broad queries that if insufficient would lead to a cash prize for the guest. Naturally, no prominent public figure would be invited as the guest. The Colonel, in full whites, appeared before the panel, which asked him such baffled questions as “Is your product anything I might use?” (Arlene Francis), “Is your product a fruit or a vegetable?” (Dorothy Kilgallen), and “Is it ever used in connection with that marvelous drink, a mint julep?” (Martin Gabel).

The panelists were unable to puzzle out what the Colonel made and appeared skeptical when he described its finger-licking-good qualities. “How many spices is it . . . ?” host John Charles Daly asked the Colonel, and the guest had a ready answer. He inserted a quick statement about nine hundred restaurants and “a patented frying method” and wrapped up, all in the same breath, by telling the viewing audience, “Wherever you see a picture of this mug of mine, you know you’re going to get good food, at least good chicken.” There was polite laughter, and the Colonel was sent on his way.

Watching the clip today, one can’t help finding it somewhat surreal. How is it possible that the panelists had no idea who Colonel Sanders was? (A similar question on the other side of history hit KFC in the form of its 2010 survey.) The answer is obvious, in retrospect; he wasn’t on TV yet. Not that the highbrows who cross-examined him would have watched much TV in any case or admitted to it if they had. But when a short time later “the Colonel” became universally known, it was neither because of the excellence of his chicken nor his “mug” on signs from coast to coast. No, the engine of his fame, of almost all fame in America at the time, was television. And the Colonel turned out to be a natural for TV.

Other spots and cameos followed. Brown, showing a prescient awareness of the power of television, brought in Stan Lewis, a Madison Avenue ad executive, to get the Colonel into the public mind. In 1967 the Colonel appeared in two not-so-memorable movies—as an irate customer who bangs his cane on a hotel desk in Jerry Lewis’ The Big Mouth and as the owner of a fried chicken restaurant in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blast Off Girls. A few years later Sanders would appear in two even worse movies, The Phynx and Hell’s Bloody Devils, as himself.

On the small screen he was a regular presence. He appeared on The Tonight Show with a box supposedly containing his two million dollars. On Merv Griffin’s show an actor walked up and down the aisles looking for “that Colonel that stole my wife,” and when the man found the Colonel, not at all inconspicuous in his white suit, his quarry high-tailed it down the aisle followed by ushers carrying buckets of chicken, which he then proceeded to hand out to the crowd.

The Colonel was a big hit on television, much to the surprise of Stan Lewis, John Y. Brown, and everybody else. It was conceivable that he would get nervous, flub his lines, or otherwise flinch at the thought of appearing before so many people at once. Also, everyone was aware that the Colonel, despite his vitality, was an old man: by the time of his first appearance on What’s My Line? he was already seventy-three years old and looked like the guy on the bucket. But as they found out, he was able to adopt his lifelong sales gift to the camera without too much trouble, even to the extent of impromptu joshing around with various talk-show hosts. He wasn’t the gifted performer some of his hagiographers make him out to be; at his best the Colonel was a somewhat wooden performer, albeit a likable one.

By 1969 his TV persona was well established and perfectly presented in a commercial. The viewer peers through the window on a rainy night to see him seated in a rocker with a little girl on his knee. “I’m Colonel Harland Sanders, and I’d like to tell you a little bit about my Kentucky Fried Chicken,” he says in a quick, clipped monotone. A prim young woman in an old-fashioned blouse affixed with a cameo says from the dining room, “Ain’t you coming?” As the Colonel sends the little girl along, saying, “You go ahead, honey, I want to talk to these folks a little bit longer,” he has launched headlong into his practiced patter. “Now there’s only one way to cook Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that’s my way. We always use plump young broilers, always fresh, never frozen. [Cut to images of the children eating chicken pieces and licking their fingers.] Each piece is dipped into an ‘egg warsh’ and then seasoned flour [Dad takes a bite] in which we have the eleven different spices and herbs for flavor.” Then, without pausing, he says, “One more thing, folks: it’s the only way you’re ever going to get chicken that’s finger-licking good, and I’d be mighty proud to have you try Colonel Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mighty proud.” He rises from his chair. “Now excuse me a minute, please,” he says, shuffling off toward the dining room, where his red-haired, cameo-wearing daughter, an older version of Wendy, is licking her fingers. The sight finally rouses the somnolent Colonel from his trance, and he becomes, for the first time, animated: “Hey, looka there! Didn’t I tell you it was finger-licking good? Heh heh heh,” he laughs, walking with his cane toward the table. A melodious baritone rolls over the scene, singing “Kentucky Fried Chicken. If you want Kentucky Fried Chicken, you’ll have to visit me . . . ,” and the words “Visit the Colonel” appear at the bottom of the screen.

The message is clear enough—the Colonel represents old-time values. He’s bathed in the warm light of a fireplace, the familial hearth keeping his kin warm on a cold and rainy night. We come in out of the rain to see him; as the commercial begins, the camera is very much on the outside looking in. “Yes,” it seems to say, “you live in a grossly inhospitable modern age filled with Vietnam, hippies, and skyrocketing meat prices—but there’s still room for you here at the Colonel’s table.” For one thing, the spot misses no opportunity to remind us of the Colonel’s role as a living bridge to that antebellum idyll and ourselves. He’s physically between us and the Sanders family (with the chicken keeping them all together). And he’s addressing us with familiarity (“I want to talk to these folks a while longer”) even though we’ve just met (“I’m Colonel Harland Sanders. . . .”). All his talk of plump broilers and “egg warsh” is merely a distraction from the main attraction, which is the sight of the family all eating fried chicken together in a genteel setting, licking their fingers as they do so. The Colonel even shares a laugh with us over it at the end; it’s as if we’ve somehow bonded with him.

It’s the end of the commercial that most underscores just how important Sanders was to the whole enterprise. Up until the last shot of the commercial, we’ve existed entirely under his spell in a carefully art-directed vision of antebellum comfort. Colonel Sanders was the main thing Kentucky Fried Chicken had going for it. As the exterior shot shows at the end—of a big Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant surrounded by a parking lot—nothing about the product could be further from this sentimental scene. Kentucky Fried Chicken was the cutting edge of a new kind of restaurant deliberately created to sever all the last bonds between private and public dining. Minimal options, no servers, a stark space without even a shred of linen, and a business completely geared toward speed and take-out orders via a battery of high-tech pressure cookers—that was the reality of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was the power of the Colonel’s image to coat this pill in the sentimental signs of the Old South, of hospitality with a human face. That is part of what makes the transition from the real Colonel to the illustrated face rotating atop a tower such a profound juxtaposition. In future commercials, great pains would be taken to make Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants look almost as friendly and warmly lit as the fantasy home featured in the commercial.

Of course, the real life of Kentucky Fried Chicken was far from a family business, either in fact or in spirit. The initial public offering, ennobled by the Colonel’s presence on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, was an enormous hit. He bought the first hundred shares of Kentucky Fried Chicken at ten dollars a share and after a series of splits found himself selling them at a whopping four hundred dollars a share. Everyone wanted a piece of the new chain, and, at least at first, the confidence did not seem misplaced: within two years the chain opened more than 1,000 stores, 861 in 1968 alone, and brought in over $100 million in total sales.

The effect on Kentucky Fried Chicken’s infrastructure was a kind of irrational exuberance. Twenty-one employees were made “instant millionaires” as a result of their stock holdings, and nobody, including even John Y. Brown, had the slightest idea how to run a multimillion-dollar, transnational corporation. The general feeling seemed to be that they had “made it” and that they ought to just keep the money coming in by opening more Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants.

The executives “became a bunch of prima donnas,” Brown recollects, adding that his wife at the time urged him to fire everybody.13 But firing large sectors of the staff just as they had accomplished a great feat after much labor, endless hours, and great personal sacrifice was no more Brown’s way than it would have been the Colonel’s. The plain fact was that Brown, every bit as much as his goodwill ambassador, was an accidental traveler, a sharp-eyed opportunist who happened to see a chance to do something big and tapped into the immense forces transforming America in the 1960s. A number of these have been mentioned already: the baby boom, the National Highway Act, the growth of the suburbs, car culture, and the like. A far more important one, though, and less frequently mentioned by historians was absorption of restaurant chains by big business.

The idea of a fried chicken restaurant being traded on the New York Stock Exchange would have seemed patently insane to anyone in the 1920s, when it was understood that the proper concerns of large corporations were vast and impersonal enterprises like railroads, mining, and steel. All that changed when McDonald’s went public in 1965. It was an immediate success, splitting over and over again. As a result, soon every major chain became attractive to large corporations seeking profitable businesses to fit into their portfolios. Often these were food companies like Pillsbury, which acquired Burger King in 1967, and General Foods, which bought Burger Chef the same year. And why not? These were national chains run in the most stable, modern management methods, usually by graduates of the country’s top business and law schools. These were no longer isolated enterprises run by one or another regional mogul; they were genuinely national businesses. That was what made them valuable. But that had nothing whatever to do with Harland Sanders—or, for that matter, his chicken.

Brown was ahead of the curve in intuiting that the business could become that big; still, its success surprised him as much as anybody. Just as Harland Sanders had been a successful but by no means iconic motel and restaurant owner in the years before fast food took over the country, Brown should have been a successful Louisville businessman with a Cadillac, a share in a thoroughbred horse, and, maybe, a fast track in Louisville politics. It was in no way through his own conscious agency that he had become the head of a giant corporation—a corporation, in fact, that had no real long-term plans and no senior management to speak of.

Nor was Brown the sole owner. Jack Massey, the Nashville investor who had made Kentucky Fried Chicken possible by laying out most of the money, knew even less than Brown about the restaurant business, fast-food chains or otherwise, and was so unconscious of the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand that he insisted, over the Colonel’s most profane objections, that the headquarters be moved to his home state of Tennessee. Massey claimed that the move was to help attract stockholders—a ludicrous argument in retrospect. Nobody goes to Nashville to attract investors unless they are starting a country-and-western band. The Colonel, predictably, was devastated. Previously, the headquarters had been an office adjacent to his home in Shelbyville. He and Claudia had launched the business there. It was a cold, hard reality for him to face, and he didn’t take to it well. Sanders had despised Massey pretty much from the first. The move cemented his loathing. He was therefore primed and paranoid and all too ready to believe a rumor he heard that one of Massey’s people had suggested getting rid of the Colonel by cutting his pension and thus maneuvering him into quitting.14

The idea was so absurd, especially in those boom years of the company’s success, that it’s hard to imagine it could really have happened. On the other hand, it’s not inconceivable. Sanders was, in fact, a royal pain in the ass, and his antipathy toward Massey was fully reciprocated. Still, no one at Kentucky Fried Chicken can say who the person was or what he or she might have been thinking. It may well be that someone vented in a meeting after one of Sanders’ tongue lashings that there must be some way to get rid of him. Whether the idea was ever seriously proposed, the Colonel heard about it somehow and at the worst possible time: just before he was to address the first convention of franchisees, more than a thousand of them, gathered to pledge their unity and fealty to the new leadership. When the Colonel showed up in a black suit, Brown knew he was in for trouble.

The Colonel proceeded to excoriate management for more than forty minutes. They had forgotten the people who had made them what they were. They were squeezing the franchisees, thinking only about the short term. They were destroying the company that he and his “family” had built. The food wasn’t as good and was getting worse, thanks to their new-fangled innovations and their modernization plans and their corporate plotting and moneymaking schemes. The Colonel went on and on. Massey, who was seated on his right, turned red and was burning up. Brown was covered with sweat. It was a dark moment and, really, one of the Colonel’s most ignoble acts. Massey and Brown had paid him a generous amount for his business, and he had sworn in the most earnest and solemn terms never to criticize them; now he was attempting to humiliate them publicly in the most awkward possible place and time. Whether or not he believed or pretended to believe that the company was looking to get him out by means of some sinister pension scheme, it was utterly out of character to plan out such an attack.

Brown was especially embarrassed. “I saw everything going up in smoke,” he would later tell John Ed Pearce. “Here, in what was supposed to be our hour of victory, our leader, our symbol, had turned against us. And I knew good and well that if these people believed him, if he left us and turned them against us, our company was shot.”15 After the Colonel had exhausted his ire, Brown stood up. As he reconstructed his off-the-cuff remarks for Pearce and future interviewers (his account of it to me was almost word for word the same), this was Brown’s response:

What we have just heard shows why we have one of the great companies of the world, and why it is going to be even greater. For this man here, who founded it, is an artist, and like all great artists, he’s a perfectionist. He founded this company on the desire not just for profit but for excellence . . . The Colonel wants us to keep up to his standards. What we represent is the Colonel’s dream. It really is a dream, and it’s up to us to make that dream come true. It may be that in our rapid growth, in our drive to organize this fast- growing company along the lines of order and efficiency that are fair to everyone, we have somehow slipped from following your standards, Colonel. But, Colonel, let me say this: when you sold this company to us, you asked us to be fair and honorable, and we have been. We haven’t had a single lawsuit. There is not one single person who can say that we haven’t honored every promise, every contract we have made. If there is anyone here who has any complaint, who feels he has been treated unfairly, we haven’t heard of it, and we want to hear of it.16

The Colonel, still thinking the crowd was with him, grabbed the microphone and asked for a show of hands. None went up. His coup had failed. Brown, sensing his victory in hand, proceeded to the strongest part of his counterargument, which, born salesman that he was, he had held in reserve: the unquestionable litany of Kentucky Fried Chicken’s financial successes—the immense sales figures, the growth, the profits being seen by franchisees from both operations and stock. He ended by turning to his vanquished attacker and saying, “Colonel, you’re still our leader. You’ll always be our leader. And I give you my word that we’re going to make this company all you want it to be and more.” The room erupted in applause. Most of the crowd knew the Colonel well and saw his intemperate attack as just hotheadedness. None were prepared to take arms against the company that was making them rich, however. Even the Colonel knew he had been in the wrong. “Well, John, you did a good job last night,” he told Brown.17 The two men never spoke of it again and even remained friendly, although the Colonel always believed that he had been swindled, or pretended to believe it, anyway.18 Irascible but essentially good-natured, he simply found it hard to hold a grudge, particularly against the charming and deferential Brown, who continued to treat the Colonel as a father and to act as his advocate internally at the corporation. There was no doubt, though, who was boss. Within Kentucky Fried Chicken, the showdown had a galvanizing effect, removing any doubt of who was in charge and placing the Colonel, then and forever, in his powerless role as goodwill ambassador for a company he founded but no longer controlled. His dream, the American Dream, of fame and fortune regardless of rank had come true; but the price of it had been the erasure of his identity. And he knew it.

Notes

1. Frederick C. Klein, “John Y. Brown, Rich and Taking It Easy,” Wall Street Journal, April 1, 1975.

2. Brown, interview.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. In Pearce, The Colonel, 125.

6. Harland Sanders, Life as I Have Known It, 126.

7. “Harland Sanders Is Dead at Age 90,” Louisville Times, December 18, 1980. 

8. Brown, interview.

9. Margaret Sanders, Colonel’s Secret, 325.

10. In Darden, Secret Recipe, 84.

11. Brown, interview.

12. In Pearce, The Colonel, 137.

13. Brown, interview.

14. Darden, Secret Recipe, 104.

15. Ibid., 149.

16. Ibid., 149–150.

17. Ibid.

18. Margaret Sanders, Colonel’s Secret, 325.

Excerpt from Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, by Josh Ozersky (Copyright © 2012 by The University of Texas Press) used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com. Find the book at your local bookseller

This story is part of WFPL’s Food & Drink Week. We’ll be exploring dining and libations in the Louisville area ahead of Thanksgiving. You’ll find new stories here everyday through the holiday.

Comments