• Robb G. Best

Kentucky Fried Coincidence

As Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman says, frequently we underestimate the role of luck in our successes.

To illustrate this, consider the case of a Corbin, Kentucky gas station owner named Harlan Sanders. One day, while working in his station on U.S. Highway 25, he happened to hear a customer complain, “Damn! There ain’t a decent place around here to eat!” Sanders, who had bounced from job to job for years, would later remember, “I got to thinking. One thing I could always do was cook.”

Smithsonian magazine reports what happened next. Sanders remodeled the store room of his station into a restaurant, where weary travelers could order country ham, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and fried chicken.

By 1953, business was going so well that the café had been expanded to accommodate 142 eaters, and Sanders was offered $164,000 for his Corbin business—which he promptly refused. That same year, Sanders met entrepreneur Pete Harman at a restaurant convention, and Harman agreed to go into business as Sander’s first franchisee.

It must have been easy to believe that Sanders’s success was the inevitable result of his hard work and excellent product. But three years later, he was broke and unemployed.

In 1956, U.S. Highway 25 was routed just 7 miles west of Corbin, and that steady stream of customers dried up. Where just three years before, Sanders had glibly turned down $164,000 for his business, now he had to auction it at a loss for $75,000. However good his chicken might have been, a slight tweak of the map could still spell the difference between profit and ruin.

Sanders decided to redouble his franchising efforts, driving to small establishments to make his pitch and sleeping in his car. Luckily for Sanders, this worked out well, dispersing the risk of any particular location suffering the fate of Corbin—and allowing Sanders to benefit from the ideas of others.

Meeting Pete Harman at that restaurant convention turned out to be a stroke of excellent luck for Sanders. Harman engineered, among other things, the concept of a chain of standardized eateries, the carryout meal including chicken in “bucket” form, the slogan “finger-licking good,” and yes, the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Without Harman’s innovations, KFC would be unrecognizable at best, and unsuccessful at worst.

And still, for those of us tempted to give too much credit to Sanders’s secret recipes, here’s an important little morsel: after Sanders sold the franchise, KFC began to retool its food, much to the Colonel’s chagrin.

In fact, in 1975, the then-parent company tried and failed to sue Sanders for libel, for comments like this, quoted in the Louisville Courier-Journal:

“My God, that gravy is horrible. They buy tap water for 15 to 20 cents a thousand gallons and then they mix it with flour and starch and end up with pure wallpaper paste. And I know wallpaper paste, by God, because I've seen my mother make it. ... There's no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it.”

A bitter end, perhaps, for that most fortunate of chicken magnates. But no matter what, his fingerprints remain all over the American culinary landscape—plentiful, spirited and just a little greasy.

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