He was born in Indiana, not Appalachia, and for the first 39 years of his life he stumbled around from one job to the next: insurance salesman, steamboat ferry operator, gas lamp manufacturer, railroad man, even justice of the peace.
But in 1929 Harlan Sanders finally found his life’s calling. That was the year he moved to Corbin, Kentucky and opened a gas station along U.S. Route 25. When tourists and traveling salespeople asked Sanders where they could get something to eat nearby, he got the idea of opening a small restaurant next to the gas station. He invented what’s called “home meal replacement” – selling complete meals to busy, time-strapped families. He called it, “Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week.”
The restaurant had one table and six chairs and specialized in Southern cooking such as pan fried chicken, ham, vegetables, and biscuits. Sanders moved his establishment across the street to a bigger location, with room for 142 seats, a motel and a service station. He took an eight-week course in restaurant and hotel management from Cornell University to learn more about the business. Sanders’ café had a homey atmosphere, with no menu, but good food. When restaurant critic Duncan Hines listed Sanders’ place in Adventures in Good Eating in 1935, its fame increased.
The popular café impressed Governor Ruby Laffoon. That same year he made Sanders an honorary Kentucky colonel for his contribution to state cuisine. In 1937, Sanders tried to start a restaurant chain in Kentucky, but his attempt failed. Two years later, he opened another motel and restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, but this too failed.
Sanders continued to alter his chicken recipe to get the seasonings just right. In 1939, he devised a method to cook chicken quickly because customers would not wait 45 minutes for a batch to be fried up in an iron pan. Sanders used a pressure cooker, a new invention at the time, to cook chicken in nine minutes. He found that chicken cooked in this manner turned out to be moist and flavorful. Over the next decade, he perfected his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and the basic cooking technique that is still used today.