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Life Begins At Forty – Harlan Sanders (KFC)

By December 4, 1996July 12th, 2023Management and Leadership3 min read

It was mid-life crisis and an observation by cowboy philosopher Will Rogers that turned Harlan Sanders’ life around.

In 1930, Rogers observed on his radio show, “Let me tell you something, life begins at forty.” This line has since become a cliche, but at the time it was new, and it made a big impression on Harlan Sanders. Sanders had coincidentally just turned forty and was in the throes of a deep depression. Looking back at his life, he determined that he had been a failure at everything he had tried and didn’t have much reason to believe things were going to get much better.

Sanders had dropped out of school at age fourteen and hit the road. He tried being a farm hand but didn’t like it. He became a streetcar conductor at age sixteen, but was fired a few weeks later. He tried blacksmithing but could not make a living. Finally, he found a job he liked. He became a locomotive fireman for the Southern Railroad, that is until he was fired. Next, he sold tires, then insurance, followed by working on a ferryboat. Failing at all of these, he became a secretary. He believed he would always be a failure.

Will Rogers’ observation jolted Sanders out of his doldrums. He decided to try something completely new as his forty plus life began. He opened a little gas station in Kentucky on U.S. 25, the main highway to Florida from “up North.” He added a small luncheonette and started making food for travelers. Trying to fix his tasteless fried chicken, he started experimenting with seasonings. After weeks of testing he came up with his personal “Holy Grail” – the Harlan Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken Secret Recipe with Eleven Herbs and Spices.

His fried chicken started getting famous among locals and frequent travelers. The governor of Kentucky even made him a Kentucky Colonel in 1935 in honor of his contribution to roadside cuisine. For the first time in his life, Sanders began feeling like a success. He started making a pretty good living. Then something else happened that jarred Sanders into action once again. He turned sixty-five and got his first social security check.

Feeling anything but socially secure, he decided to use the money from his first check to franchise his fried chicken recipe to other restaurants. Several restaurants took him up on the deal. He didn’t charge anything up front to franchise his recipe. He just provided the mysterious secret spice mix and asked that licensees send him five cents for every chicken they sold. “It was slow for a while,” he later recalled, “but eventually I began to realize how Mr. Woolworth built up such a big business with his five-and-dime stores. Those nickels really add up when they’re rolling in.”

Life began at forty for Harlan Sanders. And once he decided to make a difference, nothing could hold him back. Harlan sold his family business, and today PepsiCo Inc. guards the secret recipe that launched Harlan Sanders into a successful, internationally known entrepreneurial icon.