Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

Community News Network

October 18, 2013

The Colonel's real secret of KFC's success

WASHINGTON — Louisville-based Yum! Brands is not exactly a household name, but its brands are: KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut. Together they form the world's largest fast food company. In global terms, the flagship brand is good old KFC, which is an especially big hit in Asia - "Kentucky Fried Chicken" plays an integral role in Japanese Christmas traditions and its restaurants are ubiquitous in urban China. The foundations of this empire go back to a southern cook whose real culinary innovations had little to do with that famous secret blend of 11 herbs and spices.

Before there was KFC, there was really no such thing as fast-food chicken. Fast food meant thin, easily griddled burgers and thin-cut potato sticks you could dump in the deep fryer. But starting in 1930, a school dropout and army veteran named Harland Sanders - he was a teamster in Cuba during his U.S. Army stint, not a colonel - had a popular roadside motel, restaurant and service station in Corbin, Ky., where he served down-home southern classics including fried chicken and country ham. (Food critic Duncan Hines' 1940 book "Adventures in Good Eating: Good Eating Places Along the Highways of America" described the spot as "a very good place to stop en route to Cumberland Falls and the Great Smokies.") For at least the next decade, Sanders and his restaurant prospered. He became a prominent member of the local community and, despite having been born and raised in Indiana, was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel by Gov. Lawrence Wetherby.

And then came the interstate. We can only speculate as to the quality of the food at Sanders' old place, but Hines' recommendation was spot-on in terms of location. Driving south from Lexington on U.S. 25, you'd pass right by the restaurant just a few miles before reaching the turn for the Cumberland Falls Highway that would take you away from commerce and toward natural beauty. Then I-75 was built, and between Corbin and Lexington, it runs parallel to - but distinctly west of - the old U.S. 25. The new grade-separated road provided a much faster route for through-travelers. Sanders' business closed in 1955.

Fortunately for Sanders, he'd already founded a new business much more successful than the original service station. In 1952, he sold a franchise license for his "Kentucky Fried Chicken" to Peter Harman of Salt Lake City. After the original restaurant failed, this became his livelihood: traveling the country and licensing the KFC product. As recounted by Josh Ozersky in his book "Colonel Sanders and the American Dream," restaurant owners "could serve a dish called Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken in exchange for a nickel for each chicken they sold, and they had to buy the equipment and special recipe (a pressure cooker and the seasoned flour) from Colonel Sanders himself." The seasoning is what's famous today, but the pressure cooker is what's important.

Pressure frying is based on the same principle as the then-new technology of pressure cooking. By fitting a pot with a very tight lid, you can create a high-pressure environment in which the boiling point of water is raised above its normal 212 degrees Fahrenheit. With the water hotter than normal, tough cuts of meat that normally require long braising times can be done relatively quickly. After a brief surge in popularity in the 1940s, pressure cooking rapidly fell out of favor with American homemakers, largely because early models were fairly dangerous and explosion-prone.

Filling the pressure cooker with hot oil rather than water only ups the danger factor. Today's fast-food chains use specially designed pressure fryers to ensure safety, but Sanders seems to have simply encouraged his clients to live dangerously. At high pressure, you can fry chicken pieces with much less time or oil than standard methods would allow. That turned on-the-bone fried chicken into a viable fast food product, years before the processed chicken revolution that gave us various chicken nuggets and patties.

Presumably, Sanders was not the only person to try putting oil in a pressure cooker sometime in the 1940s. But he did help popularize it - alongside original franchisee Pete Harman, who developed training manuals and product guides for franchisees that led to safer large-scale pressure frying. Sanders opened about 600 KFC franchises before selling his company to an investor group in 1964. Henny Penny developed a commercial pressure fryer in 1957, and Broaster came along soon after with a competing product. KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken went initials-only in 1991) suffered a number of ups and downs throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but its early success firmly established fried chicken in the fast food landscape and turned pressure fryers into standard quick-service restaurant equipment.

The often derided or overlooked food-service sector of the economy is every bit as much a locus of innovation and technological progress as manufacturing or electronics. At high-end restaurants where scientifically enhanced cooking goes by the name "molecular gastronomy," this kind of food engineering is often celebrated. But chains - like the large factories of the industrial age - have the economies of scale necessary to tinker for the sake of real efficiency, not just novelty. Pressure frying in a single roadside diner was an interesting bit of trivia for a guidebook. Doing it in a national chain, though, transformed an industry.

    

1
Text Only
Community News Network
  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

  • Why do wolves howl?

    Of all the myths that dog the wolf, none is more widely accepted than the idea that wolves howl at the moon. Images of wolves with their heads upturned, singing at the night sky, are as unquestioned as a goldfish's three-second memory or a dog's color-blindness (both also myths).

    April 18, 2014

  • Biggest student loan profits come from grad students

    This week, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the federal government would earn roughly $127 billion from student lending during the next 10 years.

    April 18, 2014

  • quake.jpg Pennsylvania won’t take action following Ohio ruling on quakes, fracking

    Pennsylvania officials plan no action despite new Ohio rules on drilling that affect a seismically active area near the state line.

    April 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • VIDEO: Boston bomb scare defendant appears in court

    The man accused of carrying a backpack containing a rice cooker near the Boston Marathon finish line on the anniversary of the bombings was arraigned Wednesday. He's being held on $100,000 bail.

    April 17, 2014

  • Consumer spending on health care jumps as Affordable Care Act takes hold

    Nancy Beigel has known since September that she would need hernia surgery. She couldn't afford it on her $11,000 yearly income until she became eligible for Medicaid in January through President Barack Obama's signature health care law.

    April 17, 2014

  • The case for separate beds

    The other night I slept on a twin bed in the guest room of the house I share with my husband and our two kids.
    It was the best night's sleep I've had in years.

    April 17, 2014

  • Raw oysters spike U.S. rise in bacterial infections, CDC reports

    Raw oysters, so good with hot sauce, increasingly can carry something even more unsettling to the stomach: A bacteria linked to vomiting, diarrhea and pain.

    April 17, 2014

  • To sleep well, you may need to adjust what you eat and when

    Sleep.  Oh, to sleep.  A good night's sleep is often a struggle for more than half of American adults.  And for occasional insomnia, there are good reasons to avoid using medications, whether over-the-counter or prescription.

    April 16, 2014

  • Doctors to rate cost effectiveness of expensive cancer drugs

    The world's largest organization of cancer doctors plans to rate the cost effectiveness of expensive oncology drugs, and will urge physicians to use the ratings to discuss the costs with their patients.

    April 16, 2014