Sanders Cafe has been restored to the way it looked when KFC was born, kind of.
Sanders Cafe has been restored to the way it looked, kind of, when KFC was born.

Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken (In Transition)

Field review by the editors.

Corbin, Kentucky

The historical marker in front of the Sanders Cafe states it boldly: Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It happened in 1940, in the Cafe kitchen, where Harland Sanders worked out the correct combination of seasoning and cooking that would later make his chicken the most famous in the world.

Col. Sanders statue in his old office. Calendar is from 1941.
Col. Sanders statue in his old office. Calendar is from 1941.

Colonel Harland David Sanders was a real person. The historical marker calls him, "Kentucky's greatest goodwill ambassador," but he was also notoriously profane and hot tempered. Sanders once gunned down a competitor in an argument over a street sign. His passion for food was genuine. He would arrive unannounced at KFCs in his custom-painted Cadillac, taste the chicken and gravy, and if he didn't like it he'd throw it on the floor. Sanders did this routinely until a month before he died, age 90, on December 16, 1980.

Col. Sanders bronze bust, memorabilia, iconic suit, and photo-op.
Col. Sanders bronze bust, memorabilia, iconic suit, and photo-op.

In 1989 the former Sanders Cafe, which had become just another KFC, underwent a retro-renovation. When it reopened on September 9, 1990 -- it would have been Harland's 100th birthday -- the KFC part had been shoved to one side, making room for museum showcases, restored versions of the Cafe's 1940s dining room and office, and a rebuilt Harland Sanders kitchen, where, as noted by an accompanying sign, "he perfected his secret recipe."

Rare Halloween mask (1969).
Old Col. Sanders mask: almost as frightening as his modern-day impersonators.

The impact of that recipe is evident in the museum displays. One item, a campaign poster, shows Harland Sanders as a clean-shaven, business-suit-wearing Republican in 1951, running for a seat in the Kentucky State Senate. He lost. A photo taken just two years later shows Sanders completely reinvented: gone were the clean shave and business attire, replaced by a white mustache and goatee, a spotless "Southern gentleman" linen suit, and a black string tie. He was now "Colonel Sanders," brand ambassador for a product named Kentucky Fried Chicken.

"Even today," notes another display, "Colonel Harland Sanders' face is recognized by 98 percent of the American population." And not just the face. One of his famous white suits is exhibited without comment, showing that Colonel Sanders, like Elvis, is one of the rare celebrities who can be recognized without a head.

What was inside? Only the Colonel knew.
What was inside? Only the Colonel knew.

Although the menu in the Sanders Cafe is the same as at any other KFC, eating a box of chicken there is not. Its dining room is dark and old-fashioned, with wooden wall paneling and its original 1940s maple tables and chairs. Surrounding the diners and spilling into an adjoining room is a trove of Sanders memorabilia, including "Bertha," his original chicken pressure cooker; and a three-handed Cooking Clock designed by Sanders for his early franchisees, so they'd always know when to take the chicken off the stove.

Other showcased mementoes include a copy of Sanders' bizarre 1966 Tijuana Picnic promotional LP, a "very rare" Colonel Sanders Halloween mask, and an "extremely rare" 100-pound barrel of Sanders' secret seasoning mix of 11 herbs and spices. "The Colonel cut all labels from this barrel which could reveal any information regarding its contents."

The most unexpected exhibit in the Cafe is its restored "Model Motel Room." Built in 1940, the room a full-size replica of the lodgings that were available in Sanders' motor court next door. Sanders placed it between the dining room and ladies room, so that women could see its cleanliness, inspect its tasteful furnishings, and decide that this was the place that their family should spend the night. To ensure that the room would be visited by even more customers, Sanders hung the Cafe's pay telephone in it.

Just past the Cafe's modern-day order counter is a bronze bust of Sanders, sculpted by his daughter, a copy of which sits atop Colonel Sanders' tombstone. Although the artwork was completed in 1954, the Colonel looks no different than he did when he died a quarter-century later.

Perhaps this is why so many people don't realize that Colonel Sanders was a real person. Once he became a living trademark, he literally never aged.

Also see: Claudia Sanders Dinner House | First KFC Franchise

Birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken

Sanders Cafe

1002 W. Dixie Hwy, Corbin, KY
Sanders Cafe. I-75 exit 29. Drive east on US Hwy 25 E./Cumberland Gap Pkwy for 1.5 miles, then turn right onto US Hwy 25 W./Dixie Hwy for a little over a half-mile. On the right; look for the KFC bucket.
Currently closed for remodeling. (Call to verify)
In Transition
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Colonel Sanders StatueColonel Sanders Statue, Corbin, KY - < 1 mi.
Chainsaw Colonel SandersChainsaw Colonel Sanders, Corbin, KY - 3 mi.
Outdoor Millstones CollectionOutdoor Millstones Collection, London, KY - 9 mi.
In the region:
Museum of Appalachia: Perpetual Motion Machine, Clinton, TN - 54 mi.

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