The Sanders Cafe and Museum

Sanders himself

The Birth of a Seasoned Icon, Colonel Sanders

By Frank Hosek

My Grandpa Frank, the retired colonel, enjoyed a get-together. And a family visit meant something special needed to be had.

So, when he came to see us in my early years during the mid-60’s, he would march through the door with that iconic red-and-white bucket filled with chicken, its wonderful aroma wafting through the air ahead of him. Invariably he would say, “The colonels are doing the cooking tonight”. He loved his puns.


So, when we saw a sign on Interstate 75 directing us to the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum, the place where “Finger Lickin’ Good” got started?  I couldn’t resist. The Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken? Oh Yeah!

That’s how we found ourselves in Corbin, Kentucky. Midway between Knoxville Ky. and Lexington, Tn., Corbin, a town of less than 10,000, and not much more than a convenient pit-stop that is not usually found on anyone’s vacation agenda.

The Humble Beginnings

Long before celebrity chefs, Harland Sanders was an international phenomena. That dapper, senior gentleman dressed in his angelic white suit right out of Gone with the Wind, with a fondness for string ties and sporting that famous goatee and the honorary moniker of colonel took the kitchens of Middle America and the world by storm with his 11 herbs and spices. It all started in Corbin.

The Sanders Cafe in Corbin KY, began as a gas station
The Sanders Cafe in Corbin KY, began as a gas station

Exiting I-75, we rumbled onto an aging asphalt road that was a part of the old Dixie Highway which was the original Midwest to Florida thoroughfare long before the multi-lane racetracks of the modern interstate system.

The Dapper gentleman who has an afinity for white suits and string tiesAfter a couple of twists and turns, we eventually came upon a gabled, Tudor styled building that is a picture-perfect snapshot of that type of roadside eatery seen in the early 20th century when travelers actually took the time to stop and enjoy a meal instead of hurrying on to their destination, gobbling something out of a plastic wrapper with one hand while the other clutched the wheel. Different times.

We entered into an immaculate interior, with a compact modern KFC counter/kitchen just to the left of the doors where you can purchase from the full menu of Original Recipe foodstuffs.

The Sander’s Café and Museum underwent an extensive preservation in 2022 which added greatly to the experience.

From the order counter, you enter an interconnecting choice of dining rooms, each with a different exhibit paying homage to the man and his recipe.

Sanders Had a Varied Background

I was surprised to learn that his was an evolving and definitely interesting life story.  He was a grade-school drop-out who eventually earned a law degree.

In his lifetime he worked on the railroad, sold insurance, was a soldier, a tire salesman and ferry boat captain.  Ultimately outgrowing, some might say failing, these endeavors, at the age of 40, he bought a gas station across from the present-day cafe, and began pumping gas. This was the Great Depression and Harland was, if nothing else, known for his prowess at a stove. So he began selling dinners out of the backroom of his station to hungry travelers.

In 1937 he built a restaurant across the way where he began perfecting his chicken recipe and the concept of pressure frying to speed up the process.A Colonel Quote to Live By

The current building, originally a restaurant-motel complex, opened in 1940 to replace the original Sanders Cafe, which was destroyed by fire the year prior.

It was the first real success of his career, but even it wouldn’t last. When the new Interstate 75 bypassed his restaurant, his traveling clientele passed him by also. At the age of 65, he was forced to sell.

A Senior Success

The story goes, left only with his savings and his social security check, Sanders decided to try franchising his secret recipe, and traveled the US looking for willing restaurants. The rest, they say, is history. In 1964, the 73 year old sold the Kentucky Fried Chicken Corporation for $2 million, remaining its ambassador for life.

Smiles and Giggles

As we wandered around the museum/dining room the smiles and giggles from adults, reliving their youthful memories, and children amazed at the amount of quaint and cheesy advertising giveaways reminded one of the impact that the white-haired colonel had on lives. At a time when fast food icons were clowns and animated kings, the Colonel provided a home-grown warmth that eased the minds of mothers everywhere as they served up his chicken.

A reproduction of the colonels original kitchen where pressure cookers were a key component
Visitors can pose with a statue of “the Colonel” on a park bench which was a popular endeavor. It’s as though the colonel was everybody’s favorite uncle.

I found the reconstruction of the original kitchen where he created his recipe, with it’s a three-handed clock that Sanders devised for precise timing of the chicken’s preparation to be fascinating. Not the condensed concept of a fast food galley, but a large, well organized laboratory of food prep.

The Colonels image is used extensively in promoting the chains product

The Herb and Spice Room has a wall displaying 200 seasonings, allowing visitors to guess which are the secret 11 that helped to create a taste sensation.

There is also his office, and an original dining table providing a quaintness seldom found in today’s eateries. There’s even a mock-up of a motel room, which Sanders had installed to convince people to stay in his motor court.

There is an informative walk-through timeline that celebrates the legacy of Colonel Sanders and of the business’ growth over the decades, but the real crowd pleasers here are the kitschy artifacts on display, like Colonel Sanders bobble-head dolls and an array of products featuring the famous founder’s image.

With each step, I realized how an ordinary life of experience from failure can lead to a tasty triumph with perseverance and a little luck.

Harland Sanders achieved astonishing success at an age when most people choose to retire. Not willing to accept personal failure as a legacy, he took his cooking skills, added a little downhome savvy, mixed it with a Sunday dinner staple and created an endearing brand that figured prominently in our lives during the 1960s and beyond.

Before leaving, we had to order some Original recipe for our dinner. I have to say, it was truly Finger Lickin’ Good.

The Colonels would have been proud.

 Visit the Sanders Cafe

The Sanders Café was owned and operated by Colonel Sanders from 1940-1956 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. The Sanders Café and Museum is located on 688 U.S. Highway 25 West, Corbin, Kentucky

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