The Unknown History of KFC

THE UNKNOWN HISTORY OF KFC

© History Oasis

The storied history of KFC has seen no shortage of twists and turns since Harland Sanders first fired up his pressure cooker in 1930s Kentucky.

From a revolving door of early failed careers to clashes with corporate leadership, the curious history of KFC traces an unlikely path that led chicken fryer to global empire.

Read on to uncover some little-known episodes in the rich history behind this iconic fried fowl juggernaut.

KFC FOUNDER COLONEL HARLAND SANDERS FAILED AT SEVERAL PREVIOUS CAREERS BEFORE STARTING HIS OWN RESTAURANT

an old vintage KFC ad with Colonel Sanders
Source: KFC

The man who would come to be known as Colonel Sanders, the now-legendary founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, did not take readily to success in his earlier decades.

Sanders spent much of his early working life drifting between occupations, from railroad worker to insurance salesman, with mixed results in his various enterprises.

It was not until 1930, already 40 years old, that Sanders fatefully took over a service station in Corbin, Kentucky and began serving meals to travelers—fried steak, country ham, and eventually the fried chicken that would make him famous.

Though his road to fame was long and winding, Sanders' persistence through early hardships serves as a prelude to the empire he would build in his later years as the Colonel.

His story is one of patience and determination in the face of failure, not tasting success until crossing into middle age—an inspiration that it is never too late to find one's true calling.

FUTURE SERIAL KILLER JOHN WAYNE GACY BRIEFLY OWNED SOME KFC FRANCHISES

portrait of John Gacy
© History Oasis

In the 1960s, Gacy purchased multiple KFC franchise locations at the very chain that would soon rocket to worldwide recognition.

Yet even then, the dark shadow of his later infamous crimes loomed—during his brief tenure as a KFC franchise owner, Gacy is known to have psychologically and physically abused some of his own employees.

It is chilling to uncover in these otherwise-banal business dealings the hints of the monster that lay within him, the managerial power giving license to the cruelty that would underpin his later descent into serial murder.

So even as KFC ascended upon the global stage, it found itself fatefully entangled, if only briefly, with the man who would become one of America's most notorious killers. An unsettling historical footnote linking the fried chicken empire and a bloodstained villain.

WHEN COLONEL SANDERS SOLD KFC, PART OF THE DEAL WAS THAT HE WOULD REMAIN THE COMPANY'S QUALITY CONTROLLER

KFC Colonel Santa ad
Source: KFC

It was an arrangement that suited Sanders, allowing the founder to retain authority over the chicken recipe he had perfected and stop any degradation in quality at the chain he had built.

For the new corporate owners, it lent KFC the ongoing public relations value of keeping Colonel Sanders as a mascot and symbol of the brand.

While Sanders had relinquished ownership, he would still be paid and involved for the rest of his days, keeping the Colonel as the eternal face and taste-tester of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

It was a deal that barnstormed KFC to global success even as it sidelined its creator—but at least ensured some lifetime compensation for the Colonel's coronation of their empire.

COLONEL SANDERS FIERCELY CRITICIZED KFC'S FOOD QUALITY UNDER CORPORATE OWNERSHIP

Colonel Sanders yelling
© History Oasis

Even with the lifetime salary and oversight role, Colonel Sanders could not bite his tongue as he witnessed his beloved Kentucky Fried Chicken brand decline under corporate leadership in the 1970s.

Sanders openly and biting critiqued the increasingly subpar food, sparing no words.

He called the gravy "horrible", denouncing it as no better than "pure wallpaper paste."

The Colonel's grievances reminded all that this was still his beloved recipe at stake, corporate ownership notwithstanding.

With his trademark fire, Sanders aired his grievances loudly and publicly as the quality slipped.

It was a bold stand for fidelity to his food even if the business now belonged to suits and ties. For the founder of fast food fried chicken, quality still reigned—and neither time nor sale could erode the Colonel's demands for flavor.

PEPSICO ACQUIRED KFC

vintage pepsi ad
Source: PepsiCo

When beverage giant PepsiCo acquired the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand in 1986, it was a merger of two iconic American corporate dynasties.

An acquisition price of $850 million saw the fried chicken empire that Colonel Sanders built come under the umbrella of the same company that owned snack and soda mainstays like Pepsi, Frito-Lay, and Taco Bell.

While PepsiCo had no previous experience in the restaurant sphere, their distribution networks and marketing muscle poised them for dominance amid intensifying fast food rivalries.

This marriage of supply-chain scale with a beloved food brand set the stage for Kentucky Fried Chicken's global expansion in the coming decades—including international outposts that the Colonel likely never envisioned back in 1930s Corbin.

Under their new owners’ stewardship, KFC's best days likely still lay ahead.

KFC DROPPED THE WORD "FRIED" FROM ITS NAME IN SOME MARKETS

KFC modern ad
Source: KFC

In a public relations move responding to growing health trends of the 1990s, the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand subtly shifted its image by dropping the word "Fried" from its name in some markets worldwide.

With rising concerns over the nutritional impacts of fried foods, the company opted to rebrand itself as the more innocuous initialism "KFC" in parts of the world.

While still serving its signature fried chicken recipe, this name change distanced the chain from the now-controversial cooking method in places where fried fare faced mounting scrutiny.

It was a small semantic evolution, but one that hinted at a restaurant empire cognizant of changing health attitudes, gradually pivoting to remain palatable to 21st century consumers with greater nutritional caution and awareness.

By purging its moniker of greasy connotations, KFC or Kentucky Fried Chicken positioned itself to thrive even in a woke, post-fried future.

A MAN DRESSED AS COLONEL SANDERS WAS DOUSED IN FAKE BLOOD BY A PETA PROTESTOR

© History Oasis

In 1997, ongoing protests over KFC's chicken welfare practices took a shocking turn when a PETA protest targeted a man dressed as founder Colonel Sanders himself.

During a demonstration, the protestor soaked the Sanders mascot costume in vivid red fake blood, dramatizing animal rights group PETA’s objections to KFC’s chicken suppliers.

The display seemed to say that the treatment of poultry had metaphorically stained the Colonel’s iconic white suit red.

While Colonel Sanders was long passed, his embodiment stood in for the entire KFC corporation, whose choice of meat processors PETA sought to indict in this vivid media spectacle.

A beloved fast food icon was thus confronted with stark imagery critiquing the modern supply chains that now fed his famed recipe—a recipe some alleged brought great cruelty along with finger-lickin’ flavor.

KFC SALES DROPPED AFTER PIZZA HUT & DOMINO’S BEGAN OFFERING THEIR OWN FRIED CHICKEN PRODUCTS

© History Oasis

In 2002, KFC endured an embarrassing drop in sales as some of its fast food peers encroached on their signature product category—fried chicken.

Competitors Pizza Hut and Domino's began offering fried chicken menu items that swiftly poached customers from KFC's core offerings.

While pizza chains diversifying into poultry might have seemed unusual, the falling sales induced by this encroachment of menu items proved that KFC lacked differentiation.

The very fact that a pizza company could lure away fried chicken lovers underscored how little innovation was emerging from the KFC kitchens.

Their lack of new flavors and products had left them vulnerable to rivals creating chicken offerings eerily similar to KFC's own staple.

With little to distinguish KFC chicken from new-to-the-space imitators, the brand faltered, proving complacency has no place in the ruthless fast food arena.

This dip forced KFC to reconsider variety and invention if they wanted to dominate chicken again.

KFC LAUNCHED THE INFAMOUS DOUBLE DOWN—A SANDWICH WITH FRIED CHICKEN FILETS

Double Down ad
Source: KFC

In 2010, KFC unveiled a new menu item that achieved instant notoriety—the Double Down.

True to its decadent name, the Double Down featured no bread, instead sandwiching bacon and cheese between two breaded chicken filets.

This bald-faced replacement of buns with fried meat drew accusations of outrageous unhealthiness. Critics attacked the over-the-top recipe as an embodiment of fast food excess, packing over 500 calories and 30 grams of fat between two fried chicken cutlets.

While initially polarizing, the item was also a viral hit—for better or worse, KFC had created one of their most famous menu inventions ever.

The very absurdity and indifference to nutrition was central to its identity. By defiantly owning the gluttonous ethos of comfort food, KFC had sculpted a uniquely extreme fast food concoction for the ages—one that reveled in being an unrepentant artery-clogger.

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