The Real Reason Colonel Sanders Regretted Selling KFC

If asked, "What do you want on your tombstone?" a sophisticated fan of frozen pizzas might reply, "Pepperoni and sausage." A pizza heathen might blurt out, "Pineapple and anchovies" or some other oral abomination. But as Food & Wine describes it, if you're Colonel Harland Sanders, you pick an actual epitaph that's as simple as it is impressive: "Founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken Empire." Clearly, Colonel Sanders — who really should have been promoted to Emperor Sanders, based on that inscription — didn't mince words. But near the end of his life, he frequently made cutting remarks about what he considered the declining quality of KFC's food.

Sanders had sold the company in 1964 but remained its spokesperson. Throughout the 1970s until his death in 1980, he used his position to speak out about his misgivings, even proclaiming that the gravy "ain't fit for my dogs." KFC director of international training Lou Karibo explained to the Lexington Herald-Leader that Sanders had a set way of doing things. He seemed to treat any departure from his recipe an affront to food and "would raise hell" about it at restaurants.

By 2014, KFC had adopted nearly a half-dozen different ways to make chicken, and Karibo knew exactly how the Colonel would take it: "I guarantee the old man is rolling around in his grave." 

Seeing his life's work altered must have been hard

It might be easy to picture Colonel Sanders as a cantankerous old man who couldn't accept change. But his recipes had changed his life. He only had had a 6th-grade education, but was a self-taught Ph.D. in delicious fried chicken. After becoming the owner of a Shell Oil gas station in 1930, he used his culinary brilliance to build his empire from scratch. He and his family lived at the gas station, and every Sunday, he served up a masterpiece of a meal. It dawned on him that he could make money feeding the people who stopped by the station asking for restaurant suggestions. His chicken, in particular, turned out to be the recipe of success.

Sanders built KFC from scratch (specifically chicken scratch) and expanded it by traveling the country and selling his recipes. Those recipes had fed his family, filled his wallet, and filled stomachs across the nation. How could he not have taken it personally to see something he had such a personal hand in become a stranger to him? It probably felt like someone was killing his life's work.