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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.

    

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