Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken
The historical marker in front of the Sanders Cafe states it plainly: Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It happened in 1940, in the Cafe kitchen, where Harland Sanders worked out the combination of seasoning and cooking that would later make his chicken the most famous in the world.
Colonel Harland David Sanders was a real person. The historical marker calls him, "Kentucky's greatest goodwill ambassador," but he was also notoriously profane and hot-tempered. Sanders once gunned down a Corbin competitor in an argument over a street sign. His passion for food was as fiery as the atmosphere inside one of his kitchen pressure cookers. He would arrive unannounced at KFCs in his custom-painted Cadillac, taste the chicken and gravy, and if he didn't like it — he'd throw it on the floor. Sanders did this routinely until a month before he died, age 90, on December 16, 1980.
The Colonel sold the Cafe in 1956. For decades it was just another KFC. Then it underwent two retro-renovations: the first in September 1990 — for what would have been Harland's 100th birthday — and the second in April 2022. The result: the KFC part has been shoved to one side, making room for museum exhibits and a rebuilt Harland Sanders kitchen, where, as noted by an accompanying sign, "he perfected his secret recipe."
There is no X on the floor — the exact spot of Harland's eureka moment has been lost to time — but in the universe of fast food this is as near to sacred ground as it's possible to get.
The repercussions of The Colonel's recipe are evident in the museum's artifacts. One, a campaign poster, shows Harland Sanders as a clean-shaven, business-suit-wearing Republican in 1951, running for a seat in the Kentucky State Senate. He lost. A photo taken just two years later shows Sanders completely reinvented: gone were the clean shave and business attire, replaced by a white mustache and goatee, a spotless "Southern gentleman" linen suit, and a black string tie. He was now "Colonel Sanders," brand ambassador for a product named Kentucky Fried Chicken.
One museum display, "Who Will Be the Next Colonel?", showcases the range of celebrities who've portrayed Harland in KFC commercials, from Reba McEntire to Rob Lowe to a gold-plated Billy Zane. Colonel Sanders, like Elvis, crafted an image so iconic that it continues to nourish human impersonators — despite its progenitor being dead for over 40 years.
Although the menu in the Sanders Cafe is the same as at any other KFC, eating a bucket of chicken there is not. Surrounding the diners and spilling into an adjoining room is a trove of Sanders memorabilia, including a three-handed Cooking Clock designed by Sanders for his early franchisees, so they'd always know when to take the chicken off of the stove. A wall display of 192 herbs and spices suggests how difficult it was for the Colonel to select the 11 that went into his secret recipe. Did he choose mustard flour? Jasmine pearls? Devil's claw root? 100-pound barrels of Sanders' seasoning mix are simply labeled "basic formula" because he refused to reveal the contents.
The Colonel's famous white suit is displayed without a head. It isn't needed, since the Colonel's face — "The Most Recognized Face in the World," according to one exhibit — is everywhere in the museum: on KFC bobbleheads, boxes, buckets, beverage coolers, 45 rpm records, clocks, calendars, ash trays, puppets, hand fans, Halloween masks, comic books, and even two life-size pose-with-the-Colonel statues. Colonel Sanders' voice is also everywhere, broadcast from video monitors screening old KFC commercials and training films, where Harland dispenses his motivational maxims for the unpronounceable "QSCVFOOFAMP" (Quality, Service, Cleanliness, Value, Facilities, Other Operating Factors, Advertising, Marketing, Promotion). "The Colonel excelled at all," one showcase insists.
The most unexpected exhibit in the Cafe is its restored "Model Motel Room." Built in 1940, the room is identical to the lodgings that were available in Sanders' motor lodge next door. Sanders placed it between the Cafe dining room and ladies room, so that women could see its cleanliness, inspect its tasteful furnishings, and decide that this was the place that their family should spend the night. To ensure that the room would be visited by even more customers, Sanders hung the Cafe's pay telephone in it.
Just past the Cafe's modern-day order counter is a bronze bust of Sanders, sculpted by his daughter, a copy of which sits atop Colonel Sanders' grave. Although the artwork was completed in 1954, the Colonel looks no different than he did when he died a quarter-century later.
Perhaps this is why so many people don't realize that Colonel Sanders was a real person. Once he became a living trademark, he also became timeless, immortal. Just like his chicken.