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Why Did Colonel Sanders Sue KFC for $122 Million in 1974?

Margaret Lipman
By
Published Jul 08, 2024
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For younger generations of Kentucky Fried Chicken fans, the smiling image of bespectacled, white-suited Colonel Sanders has taken on a legendary quality. For those unfamiliar with the KFC story, the Colonel Sanders logo and character used extensively in marketing materials could simply be a work of fiction, like Betty Crocker.

But Harland Sanders was very much a real person—and one who was so fiercely protective of the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand that he took the company’s new owners to court for $122 million while in his 80s.

By the time he got into the restaurant business in his 40s, Harland Sanders' extremely varied work experience already included serving in the U.S. Army in Cuba and working as a farmhand, streetcar conductor, and steamboat ferry operator. At various points, he had practiced law in justice-of-the-peace courts and sold life insurance and car tires.

By 1930, during the Great Depression, Sanders was operating a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, where he began serving country ham and steak dinners to truck drivers. He then opened the nearby Sanders’ Café, where he sold fried chicken for the first time, developing his secret “11 herbs and spices” recipe.

In 1952, Salt Lake City restauranteur Pete Harman became Sanders' first franchisee, adopting the Kentucky Fried Chicken name to tempt customers to try what was then seen as a regional specialty. Following his success in Utah, 65-year-old Sanders, who was then relying on his monthly Social Security check for income, began driving around the United States in search of new franchisees, who would pay Sanders to use his recipe, pressure frying method, and likeness. This business model was highly successful, and KFC soon expanded across the country and overseas. By 1964, the company had expanded to 600 locations, and Sanders sold the company, staying on as a brand ambassador and retaining control of the Canadian operations.

However, despite representing the brand in numerous TV commercials and media appearances, Sanders became increasingly vocal about his displeasure with the quality of the food sold by KFC, which had become unprofitable under the ownership of the food and beverage conglomerate Heublein Inc. He called the gravy “sludge” and compared it to wallpaper paste, and said that the current fried chicken recipe was “nothing in the world but a damn fried dough ball stuck on some chicken.”

Sanders got into a major legal dispute with Heublein when he attempted to create a rival company by franchising a restaurant that he had opened with his wife in 1968 (the chunkily-named “Claudia Sanders, The Colonel’s Lady Dinner House”). Heublein sued Sanders to block this plan and stop him from using his image to promote the restaurant, and Sanders countersued Heublein for $122 million on the grounds that they had used his image on food items he had not developed or approved. They eventually settled out of court for $1 million. Sanders agreed to stop lambasting KFC's food, and the restaurant was allowed to stay open (renamed “Claudia Sanders Dinner House"). As part of the settlement, Sanders was reportedly given the opportunity to give cooking lessons to Heublein executives.

In 1977, Heublein appointed Michael A. Miles to improve KFC’s fortunes, and Sanders came back on board, continuing to travel up to 250,000 miles every year to promote the brand, up until his death in 1980 at age 90.

The fascinating life (and afterlife) of Colonel Sanders:

  • Though Harland Sanders did spend some time in the U.S. Army as a young man, he never progressed beyond the rank of private. The Kentucky Colonel title was bestowed by Governor Ruby Laffoon by ceremonial decree in 1935. In later life, Sanders fully embraced an identity as “The Colonel,” adopting the image we recognize from the KFC logo: a white suit (to hide flour stains), a bleached mustache and goatee to match his white hair, and a string tie.

  • There is a legend in Japan that says that Sanders cursed the Hanshin Tigers baseball team in 1985, when fans celebrating their success took a statue of The Colonel from a KFC outlet in Osaka and threw it into a river. After decades of bad luck, the team finally won the Japan Series in 2023, so perhaps the curse has finally been lifted.

  • Speaking of Japan, one of the best known anecdotes about KFC’s worldwide appeal is the Japanese tradition of having KFC for Christmas dinner, thanks to a highly successful 1970s marketing campaign with the catchphrase Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii, or "Kentucky for Christmas.”

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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