Retrotisements: The Early Days of Kentucky Fried Chicken
One of the many things that makes Kentucky Fried Chicken unique in fast food history is that its growth as a powerhouse franchise was not quite as direct as, say, McDonald’s. For one thing, the chain began not as a dedicated franchise location but rather as a menu of items out of a regular restaurant. In this case, KFC was essentially born in a pair of motels/restaurants in Asheville, North Carolina and Corbin, Kentucky. Colonel Harland Sanders, who owned both in the 1930s, rebuilt his Corbin location as a motel with a 140-seat restaurant after a fire struck in late 1939.
Here is a June 1940 newspaper ad for the Sanders Court & Café, published in the Asheville Citizen Times. Note how there is no reference to chicken:
The first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise opened on September 24, 1952 in Salt Lake City, Utah. But in the first several years of KFC’s franchise operations, it was not comprised solely of standalone buildings. Rather, what happened was that Col. Sanders licensed the right to sell chicken with the KFC brand and recipe to individual restaurants. Here are a few examples of how that looked in advertisements, starting with a March 1955 ad for the Ross Inn in the Cumberland, Indiana area. Take note of the first nationwide KFC logo:
Here’s a 1956 ad for The Huddle restaurant with some wonderful ad copy featuring “The Story of Kentucky Fried Chicken” from Lafayette, Indiana:
And here’s a 1958 Tillman’s Plaza ad featuring KFC’s famous tagline, “It’s Finger Lickin’ Good”:
Lastly, here’s a slightly grainy but great 1957 ad from KFC ground zero — Salt Lake City. It’s one of the first ads I’ve seen to prominently feature one of the iconic brand elements of KFC, the striped bucket. The Harman Cafe was owend by Pete Harman, who was the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee. Harman worked with Colonel Sanders to develop and prepare the KFC system for franchising, working to develop training manuals and product guides. His other claims to fame are the development of the bucket packaging and the emphasis on the “Finger-lickin’ good” motto.