Serious Reads: Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, by Josh Ozersky

Serious Reads

Reviews of food-themed memoirs, beach reads, and histories.

Fast food chains have become so ubiquitous, and each franchise store so identical, that it is easy to forget their unique and often tumultuous beginnings. Kentucky Fried Chicken, now known simply as KFC, was founded in 1952 as a simple cafe by "Colonel" Harland Sanders. Since those early days, the chain has expanded to 15,000 locations in 105 countries. In Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, longtime food (and meat) author Josh Ozersky details the rise to fame of the fried chicken chain and its incredibly recognizable white-suited icon.

Harland Sanders was born into a poor family, and worked on his family's subsistence farm from a young age. But he had a keen eye for business opportunities, and soon made himself known as something of an entrepreneur. When he opened the Harland Sanders Restaurant, his focus was on good, fast service in a clean environment. He was one of the first to recognize that without linens, a full wait staff, and a big menu, restaurants could turn a tidy profit selling even humble dishes. His crispy fried chicken became the highlight of the menu.

Sanders contracted with one other restaurant in the area to make his fried chicken, for which he received a small royalty. But he hadn't thought of franchising, let alone creating a fried-chicken-specific restaurant, until he met Pete Harman. Ozersky attributes many of the unique successes of KFC—its small menu, recognizable name, and signature "bucket" serving size—to Harman's creative genius. Together, Harman and Sanders expanded the KFC brand and created a franchised restaurant.

At the same time, both men recognized that part of KFC's appeal was Sanders' southern, down-home appearance. When Sanders adopted his iconic white suit, cane and beard, the KFC brand was complete. Advertising for the restaurant was based around the Colonel's image for decades. The Colonel's friendly demeanor and persona of family values built a strong and loyal customer base.

As the company continued to grow and expand, the Colonel lost much of his power over its operations. As he aged, he was slowly pushed out of the executive offices and relegated to public appearances. But until his death in 1980, he remained the face of KFC.

Ozersky does a great job discussing the ups and downs of this chain's development. Creating a menu around one popular item was a risky move, but proved appealing to an increasingly mobile and wealthy middle class. The book describes both Sanders' personal life, and the increasingly impersonal, corporate growth of KFC. For any KFC fanatics, or even those marginally interested in fast food, this book is a quick and fun read.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work has also been featured in Rhode Island Monthly Magazine.