During the 1960s and 1970s, Colonel Sanders resided in suburban Toronto.
Mississauga’s Melton Drive resembles an ordinary older, well-to-do suburban street: no sidewalks, long driveways, garages attached to roomy bungalows, a couple of trees on each front yard. Number 1337 fits right into this landscape, giving little hint that, for four months annually during the 1960s and 1970s, it was the residence of an international food icon.
Harland Sanders had a roller coaster business career. Born in Henryville, Indiana in 1890, his early professions included stints as a country lawyer, ferry operator, insurance agent, and playing the Michelin Man. He found success running a gas station and restaurant along US 25 in Corbin, Kentucky, where his fried chicken recipe attracted hungry travellers. When Interstate 75 bypassed his restaurant in the mid-1950s, Sanders hit the road to sell his Kentucky Fried Chicken recipe to potential franchisees. Driving around with his 11 herbs and spices blend and a pressure cooker, Sanders sold his concept to restaurants (which in the early days usually meant adding his chicken to an existing menu) in exchange for a royalty of five cents per bird. “The business I developed was a personal one,” Sanders wrote in his autobiography. “I knew most all of the franchisees by their first names, and many of them had slept in my beds and eat breakfast at my table. We was just one big family.”
Sanders found a receptive audience of franchisees north of the border. Reading Globe and Mail advertorial writer Mary Walpole’s description of the Kentucky Fried Chicken and trimmings served at Carter’s Sundial Restaurant in Orillia in 1962, it’s hard to square the tempting meal she depicts with its modern incarnation: “Not to be confused for a moment with ordinary fried chicken for it is served family style with rich chicken gravy…fluffy potatoes…hot rolls and honey…jellied salads…cheese tray and delicacies fore and aft.”
That same year, KFC’s franchisee in Toronto followed a new direction. Scott’s Restaurants had offered Sanders’s chicken in its four downtown diners since the late 1950s. When it opened a Scott’s Chicken Villa at Lawrence and Victoria Park, it was strictly takeout. This model offered convenience for suburban families wanting to eat at home without turning the stove on, and higher profits, thanks to its lower overhead. Within five years, Scott’s opened 20 stores and their giant roadside buckets plastered with the Colonel’s face across Metro Toronto, while franchisees elsewhere converted to the takeout format. When Scott’s was listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1969, its shares nearly doubled in value over their first month.
KFC’s rapid growth across North America was too much for Sanders to handle by himself. He sold the company to John Y. Brown and Jack Massey in February 1964 for $2 million. Sanders retained Canadian operations, forming a separate company (Colonel Sanders Kentucky Fried Chicken of Canada, Ltd.) whose profits were funnelled into the Harland Sanders Charitable Foundation of Canada. “I just don’t see no use of anybody dying and leaving an estate of half a million or a million dollars when he knows a big percentage of that is going into taxes,” Sanders observed.
At this point, Sanders purchased the $22,000 bungalow at 1337 Melton Drive for his Canadian residence. “The neighbours were thrilled—especially the kids,” neighbour and KFC executive Ted Gogoff told the Star in 1989. “They’d flock around all the time when he was here. And he was delighted to see them. He loved kids. To them, he was like a year-round Santa Claus.” Aspects of his image also moved north—his trademark white suits were tailored in Toronto. He filmed many commercials for the Canadian market, even attempting to speak French, although the results were mangled (such as pronouncing “du bon poulet” as “doo bawn poolett”). He considered becoming a Canadian citizen, assuming the amount of time he’d spent here building KFC’s presence qualified him, but then discovered he still had to put in five years of permanent residency. He continued to maintain his primary residence in Kentucky, but also continued to live on the road, racking up to 300,000 travel miles per year.
As part of the sale of KFC, Sanders agreed to stay on as the company’s goodwill icon. He promised to reserve criticism of new corporate methodologies to Brown and Massey—“Anything that I suggest to you would merely be a suggestion, and no hard feelings on my part if they are not taken.” Anyone who knew Sanders found this hard to believe, since he could be an opinionated, stubborn, temperamental old cuss, albeit one who believed his lifelong swearing habit would condemn him in the afterlife. Sanders’s hotheadedness manifested itself during visits to franchisees, where he pointed out flaws in the cooking process. He regularly blasted upper management for letting product quality slide, especially gravy which he compared to wallpaper paste. Sanders’s criticisms reached their apex in 1976, when he accompanied the New York Times to a Greenwich Village location. He thought the chicken was overcooked in stale oil and deemed the mashed potatoes and gravy “sludge.” When the manager claimed he was just following orders, Sanders gently replied “It’s not your fault. You’re just working for a company that doesn’t know what it’s doing.” Subsequent criticism of the gravy in Louisville prompted a libel suit from a franchisee, which was tossed out of court.
When Sanders turned 80 in 1970, a fundraising dinner for the Muscular Dystrophy Association was held in his honour at the Inn on the Park. The event occurred during a tumultuous week. Days earlier, he stepped down as a director of the American parent, with corporate brass citing age and outside business interests as reasons. “I just recognized my own incompetence as a board member and realized that I was some place that I had no place being,” Sanders told the New York Times. The
dinner was supposed to be hosted by MDA telethon host Jerry Lewis, but he cancelled due to a commitment to film a guest spot on the TV drama The Bold Ones. Wayne and Shuster were drafted as replacements, entertaining 500 guests who ranged from Toronto Mayor William Dennison to American franchisees. “If there’s an organ handy,” Sanders joked, “bring it in and we’ll have a funeral dirge. Cause I’d like to go now while I’m so happy.” As usual, Sanders took advantage of the occasion to blast KFC’s gravy. Diners didn’t have a chance to agree or disagree, as poached salmon and roast beef were offered instead of fried chicken.
While Sanders tinkered with several failed spinoffs, such as a line of canned chicken and dumplings which never got off the ground, his Canadian franchises continued to grow. Scott’s parlayed its chicken villas into a corporation whose holdings included service centre franchises along Highway 401, the main Canadian branch of Holiday Inn, and Black’s photography. Competitors tried to create their own version of the Colonel; when Cara planned to introduce fried chicken in its Zumburger chain in 1970, it created the character of Lance Corporal Brown, a First World War soldier who was “working his way up to colonel” while “battling through the mud to find the finest, plumpest chickens the French countryside could offer.” Cara and Scott’s had an unusual relationship: Scott’s chairman of the board, George Gardiner (who later established the Gardiner Museum), lived next door to his sister Helen, who was married to Cara head P.J. Phelan. “On early Saturday mornings at the Phelan house,” the Globe and Mail reported in 2003, “the children were treated to a hectic scene in their parents’ bedroom: Helen on one side of the bed advising brother George by telephone on where to put the next KFC outlet. On the other side, P.J. Phelan was making calls on where to plop the next Swiss Chalet.”
Sanders kept a gruelling schedule until shortly before his death in 1980. He was a regular on television, expounding his philosophies, promoting fried chicken, and sharing his born-again Christian faith. He popped up in movies, including a cameo shot in Niagara Falls for Love at First Sight, a 1977 indie flick starring Dan Aykroyd as a blind man. In the end, Sanders felt his Canadian franchises had done a better job of maintaining the integrity of his product than those in his homeland. Sanders’ charitable foundation carried on, becoming a major donor to Misssissauga’s Trillium Health Centre and Hamilton’s McMaster Children’s Hospital. The latter donation prompted health writer André Picard to question the appropriateness of fast food money going into a facility to treat childhood obesity and eating disorders (“the irony is palpable, and the resigned acceptance tragic”).
According to a survey commissioned by Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2010, around 40 per cent of 18- to 25-year-olds knew that corporate icon Colonel Sanders had been a living, breathing human being. “In the 30 years since the Colonel’s death,” Josh Ozersky observed in his book Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, “it had run headlong from his cooking methods, put an apron on him, taken it off, and even made him into a cartoon that sold Pokemon toys and did hip-hop dances.”
Such treatment would have provoked Sanders into a cussing fit. Perhaps he would have approved of a Canadian like Norm Macdonald portraying him in commercials.
Additional material from Colonel Sanders and the American Dream by Josh Ozersky (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012); Life As I Have Known It Has Been Finger Lickin’ Good by Harland Sanders (Carol Stream, Illinois: Creation House, 1974); the July 28, 1962, September 17, 1965, August 11, 1970, August 26, 1970, October 11, 2003, and November 13, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail; the August 8, 1970 and September 9, 1976 editions of the New York Times; and the August 11, 1970, September 28, 1989, September 10, 1990, and March 19, 2011 editions of the Toronto Star.
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