The Colonel’s Secret Recipe for a Successful Life
How Col. Harland Sanders reinvented himself. Many times.
By Felix Winternitz
Explore the life of Col. Harland Sanders, and you can immediately get a sense of life’s secret recipe.

Which is: Be open to change and leap swiftly at any timely opportunity that presents itself.

It might surprise you to learn that at the age of 62, Sanders was reduced to living off his $105-a-month Social Security checks. This, mind you, was before he founded the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise system that made him a millionaire.

Let’s go back to the beginning. The good colonel was running the Sanders Café in Corbin, Ky., (which still stands today as a living museum). A restaurant in a small town might seem an odd place to learn any life lesson, but this particular eatery is steeped in culinary legend — Kentucky fried chicken adorned with a secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices — and the cult of a single driving personality.

Everyone starts somewhere, and Harland started here, at the Sanders Café. He opened his original kitchen in 1930, taking the time to perfect his blend of spiced chicken that’s a familiar fast-food staple across the globe.

Today, the Sanders Café is more formally titled the Sanders Café & Museum. If you happen to visit, you can view the various 3-D models, KFC kitsch, memorabilia and other chick-a-brac while you “Eat Where It All Began,” which is the slogan. And, of course, souvenirs are available.

Sanders’ biography is more to the point: It’s a crash course in how to change directions in life, to find a second act.

Perhaps “second act” doesn’t cover it. How about multiple acts in a legendary life? The restaurateur worked at a variety of careers before the one that would catapult him to fame. He labored as a streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, steamboat ferry captain, Prudential insurance salesman, even a furniture shop owner.

Finally, he bought a service station in Corbin and, on a whim, opened a lunchroom in the back, with one table surrounded by six chairs. Sanders cooked for hungry travelers who had just stopped in for gas off busy U.S. Route 25.

Crafty in his ways, Sanders realized by the early 1950s that the planned interstate highway system would completely bypass the town of Corbin, dooming his business. Believing faithfully in the quality of his beloved fried chicken, Sanders took to driving all across the country, cooking batches of chicken for restaurant owners.

Once he won a favorable response, he entered into a handshake agreement with each owner, who would pay him a nickel for each chicken they sold.

By 1964, Sanders had amassed 600 “franchised” outlets and, that same year, sold his interest to a group of investors for $2 million. Until he died at the age of 90, he remained on as the public spokesman for the Kentucky Fried Chicken company, traveling a quarter of a million miles a year promoting his secret recipe.

By the way, Sanders’ title of colonel was no mere affectation, or even a military designation. The governor of Kentucky is exclusively empowered to grant colonel status to those few native sons and daughters who go on to impress the world.

That Harland Sanders deserves to be ranked in this royal class goes without saying. Sanders was, at his heart, a world-class marketer who built his own iconic image. He grew his trademark white mustache and goatee even as he donned a white suit and string tie every day, perfecting the image of a Southern country gentleman.

He loved mottos, slogans and taglines, calling his takeout a “home meal replacement” and “quick serve” rather than “fast food,” and bragging he dished up “Sunday dinners. Seven days a week.” Of course, few could rival his “finger lickin’ good” ad campaign. (It was actually Sanders’ oldest daughter, Margaret, who first suggested that, gee, selling the fried chicken as a take-home item might become a hit.)

The colonel’s handwritten recipe for those famed 11 herbs and spices — scribbled on yellowing paper — was recently removed from corporate vaults in Louisville during an office rehab, with police officers and armored car all in tow. “I don’t want to be the president who lost the recipe,” quipped KFC president Roger Eaton. “Imagine how terrifying that would be.”

Today, we can all take a page from the life of Col. Harland Sanders. Grab swiftly at an opportunity for a second act, and never be — um — a chicken.

The Sanders Café & Museum is open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Take Exit 29 off I-75 to the restaurant, located at 688 U.S. Route 25, in Corbin, Ky. Call (606) 528-2163.