KFC (abbr. for Kentucky Fried Chicken) is an American fast food restaurant chain headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky that specializes in fried chicken. It is the world’s second-largest restaurant chain after McDonald’s, with 22,621 locations globally in 150 countries as of December 2019. The chain is a subsidiary of Yum! Brands, a restaurant company that also owns the Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and WingStreet chains.
KFC was founded by Colonel Harland Sanders, an entrepreneur who began selling fried chicken from his roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky during the Great Depression. Sanders identified the potential of the restaurant franchising concept and the first “Kentucky Fried Chicken” franchise opened in Utah in 1952. KFC popularized chicken in the fast-food industry, diversifying the market by challenging the established dominance of the hamburger. By branding himself as “Colonel Sanders”, Harland became a prominent figure of American cultural history and his image remains widely used in KFC advertising to this day. However, the company’s rapid expansion overwhelmed the aging Sanders and he sold it to a group of investors led by John Y. Brown Jr. and Jack C. Massey in 1964.
KFC was one of the first American fast-food chains to expand internationally, opening outlets in Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Jamaica by the mid-1960s. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it experienced mixed fortunes domestically, as it went through a series of changes in corporate ownership with little or no experience in the restaurant business. In the early 1970s, KFC was sold to the spirits distributor Heublein, which was taken over by the R. J. Reynolds food and tobacco conglomerate; that company sold the chain to PepsiCo. The chain continued to expand overseas, however, and in 1987 it became the first Western restaurant chain to open in China. It has since expanded rapidly in China, which is now the company’s single largest market. PepsiCo spun off its restaurants division as Tricon Global Restaurants, which later changed its name to Yum! Brands.
KFC’s original product is pressure fried chicken pieces, seasoned with Sanders’ recipe of 11 herbs and spices. The constituents of the recipe are a trade secret. Larger portions of fried chicken are served in a cardboard “bucket”, which has become a feature of the chain since it was first introduced by franchisee Pete Harman in 1957. Since the early 1990s, KFC has expanded its menu to offer other chicken products such as chicken fillet sandwiches and wraps, as well as salads and side dishes such as French fries and coleslaw, desserts and soft drinks; the latter often supplied by PepsiCo. KFC is known for its slogans “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good!”, “Nobody does chicken like KFC” and “So good”.
The Harland Sanders Café and Museum in Corbin, Kentucky
Harland Sanders was born in 1890 and raised on a farm outside Henryville, Indiana (near Louisville, Kentucky). When Sanders was 5 years old, his father died, forcing his mother to work at a canning plant. This left Sanders, as the eldest son, to care for his two younger siblings. After he reached 7 years of age, his mother taught him how to cook. After leaving the family home at the age of 13, Sanders passed through several professions with mixed success.
In 1930, Sanders took over a Shell filling station on US Route 25 just outside North Corbin, Kentucky, a small town on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. It was here that he first served to travelers the recipes that he had learned as a child: fried chicken and other dishes such as steaks and country ham. After four years of serving from his own dining room table, Sanders purchased the larger filling station on the other side of the road and expanded to six tables. By 1936, this had proven successful enough for Sanders to be given the honorary title of Kentucky Colonel by Governor Ruby Laffoon. In 1937 he expanded his restaurant to 142 seats and added a motel he purchased across the street, naming it Sanders Court & Café.
Sanders was unhappy with the 35 minutes it took to prepare his chicken in an iron frying pan, but he refused to deep fry the chicken, which he believed lowered the quality of the product. If he pre-cooked the chicken in advance of orders, there was sometimes wastage at day’s end. In 1939, the first commercial pressure cookers were released onto the market, mostly designed for steaming vegetables. Sanders bought one and modified it into a pressure fryer, which he then used to fry chicken. The new method reduced production time to be comparable with deep frying while, in the opinion of Sanders, retaining the quality of pan-fried chicken.
“Original Recipe” and franchising
Harland Sanders in character as “the Colonel”
In July 1940, Sanders finalised what came to be known as his “Original Recipe” of 11 herbs and spices. Although he never publicly revealed the recipe, he said the ingredients included salt and pepper and that the rest “stand on everybody’s shelf”. After being recommissioned as a Kentucky Colonel in 1950 by Governor Lawrence Wetherby, Sanders began to dress the part, growing a goatee, wearing a black frock coat and a string tie and referring to himself as “the Colonel”. His associates went along with the title change, “jokingly at first and then in earnest”, according to biographer Josh Ozersky.
In 1952, Sanders franchised his recipe to his friend Pete Harman of South Salt Lake, Utah, the operator of one of the city’s largest restaurants. The Sanders Court & Café generally served travelers, so when the route planned in 1955 for Interstate 75 bypassed Corbin, Sanders sold his properties and traveled the US to franchise his recipe to restaurant owners. Independent restaurants would pay four cents on each chicken as a franchise fee in exchange for Sanders’ recipe and the right to feature it on their menus and use his name and likeness for promotional purposes.
Don Anderson, a sign painter hired by Harman, coined the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken”. For Harman, the addition of KFC was a way of differentiating his restaurant from competitors; a product from Kentucky was exotic and evoked imagery of Southern hospitality. Harman trademarked the phrase “It’s finger lickin’ good”, which eventually became the company slogan. He also introduced the “bucket meal” in 1957 (14 pieces of chicken, five bread rolls and a pint of gravy in a cardboard bucket). Serving their signature meal in a paper bucket was to become an iconic feature of the company.
By 1963, there were 600 KFC restaurants, making the company the largest fast food operation in the United States. KFC popularized chicken in the fast food industry, diversifying the market by challenging the dominance of the hamburger.
Sale and global expansion In 1964, Sanders sold KFC to a group of investors led by John Y. Brown Jr. and Jack C. Massey for US$2 million (around US$17 million in 2020). The contract included a lifetime salary for Sanders and the agreement that he would be the company’s quality controller and trademark. The chain had reached 3,000 outlets in 48 different countries by 1970. In July 1971, Brown sold the company to the Connecticut-based Heublein, a packaged food and drinks corporation, for US$285 million (around US$1.8 billion in 2020). Sanders died in 1980, his promotional work making him a prominent figure in American cultural history. By the time of his death, there were an estimated 6,000 KFC outlets in 48 different countries worldwide, with $2 billion worth of sales annually.
In 1982, Heublein was acquired by R. J. Reynolds, the tobacco giant. In July 1986, Reynolds announced the sale of KFC to PepsiCo for $850 million (around US$2.0 billion in 2020). The actual sale took place in early October for $840 million. PepsiCo made the chain a part of its restaurants division alongside Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. KFC entered the Chinese market in November 1987, with an outlet in Beijing.
In 1991 the KFC name was officially adopted, although it was already widely known by that initialism. Kyle Craig, president of KFC U.S., admitted the change was an attempt to distance the chain from the unhealthy connotations of “fried”. The early 1990s saw a number of successful major product launches, including spicy “Hot Wings” (launched in 1990), popcorn chicken (1992) and, internationally, the “Zinger”, a spicy chicken fillet sandwich (1993). By 1994 KFC had 5,149 outlets in the US and 9,407 overall, with over 100,000 employees. In August 1997, PepsiCo spun off its restaurants division as a public company valued at US$4.5 billion (around US$7.3 billion in 2020). The new company was named Tricon Global Restaurants and, at the time, had 30,000 outlets and annual sales of US$10 billion (around US$16 billion in 2020), making it second in the world only to McDonald’s. Tricon was renamed Yum! Brands in May 2002.
By 2015 KFC was struggling, having lost business to other retailers and being surpassed by Chick-fil-A as the leading chicken retailer in the US three years previously. The company launched a new initiative with a plan to revamp its packaging, decor and uniforms and expand its menu. Additionally, beginning in May 2015, a new series of US advertisements was launched featuring Darrell Hammond as Colonel Sanders. In a planned rotation of actors, Norm Macdonald, Jim Gaffigan, George Hamilton and Rob Riggle portrayed Sanders in similar ads through the fall of 2016. In January 2018, country music icon Reba McEntire played the first female Colonel Sanders.