KFC’s hometown of Corbin has plenty to crow about
The original Sanders Cafe sign is small compared to the newer KFC sign and bucket that tower over the Corbin, Ky., restaurant.(Jay Jones / Chicago Tribune)
The original kitchen in which Harland Sanders created the fried chicken that would become a worldwide sensation is preserved inside the Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum in Corbin, Ky.(Jay Jones / Chicago Tribune)
You might not have heard of Harland Sanders Cafe, but you certainly know the famous fried chicken first served here more than 75 years ago.
This unassuming restaurant in a small town in southeast Kentucky is where Colonel Harland Sanders perfected his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and launched what would become Kentucky Fried Chicken, a corporate giant with nearly 20,000 outlets around the globe.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the white-frame restaurant built in 1940 is a monument of sorts to Sanders. KFC fans make a pilgrimage here for the chicken — although it’s not the best in town; more on that later — and the adjacent museum’s exhibits chronicling the Colonel’s colorful story.
The cafe’s longtime manager, Dennis Overbey, recalled his one-and-only meeting with Colonel Sanders in 1980, the same year the fast-food pioneer died at age 90. Sanders sauntered into the cafe, impeccably dressed in one of his famous white suits.
“He carried a little spoon in his pocket so he could taste the gravy,” Overbey said. “If he didn’t like the gravy, he’d throw it on the floor and you’d have to clean up the mess.”
“He didn’t throw mine on the floor,” Overbey added with palpable pride.
The southern Indiana-born Sanders moved to Corbin at the dawn of the Great Depression to run a service station, selling his fried chicken to hungry travelers on the side. Word spread, and his food business grew. He eventually expanded the service station to include a larger cafe and a motel, where the cafe still stands. The old sign out front — its neon reads “Sanders Cafe” — is tiny compared to the oversize, red-and-white KFC sign and bucket. The restaurant has been restored to its mid-20th-century appearance, although customers order food in a modern addition that looks just like the chain’s other stores. The menu is identical, too.
For $2.50, you can buy a copy of “20 Favorite Recipes of Col. Harland Sanders,” a booklet containing his biscuit recipe, along with preparations for squash, spoonbread and pecan pie. To no one’s surprise, the top-secret chicken recipe isn’t included.
Could it be KFC? Try the recipe for yourself. (Roger Morales / Chicago Tribune)
Just past the counter, display cases are chock-full of memorabilia. A life-size statue of the Colonel sits on a bench. It’s entirely white except for the string tie, shoes and walking stick.
Sanders’ likeness is seen again in his former office. This time, he’s standing beside a 1941 calendar for Sun Crest soda while holding a bucket of chicken.
Sanders’ nephew, Joe Ledington, says he worked in his uncle’s cafe as a young boy in the ‘50s.
“He saw that I had a customized broom handle so that I could go around and sweep,” Ledington recalled. “He sawed a broom handle off for me ‘cause I was a little short.
“He was absolutely the cleanest person,” added Ledington. “It was an obsession with him.”
Ledington, 67, still lives just up the road from the cafe, which his uncle sold in 1956. In the ‘50s, around the time his uncle’s restaurant was being bypassed by Interstate 75, the Colonel was busy selling bags of his secret 11 herbs and spices, along with customized pressure cookers, to other restaurants.
“He’d put four or five in the trunk of his car and head out selling those pressures cookers,” the retired teacher said. “He never had a penny to his name until he was 65 years old.”
One of the displays in the cafe/museum shows the original kitchen where Sanders first fried his chicken in skillets.
“Then he went to pressure cookers,” Overbey said. “We got the old pressure cookers where he could fry one chicken. That’s eight pieces. Now, we can fry 36 pieces of chicken at one time.”
A slower, more time-consuming approach is how Shea Hensley likes to make his delicious fried chicken at Seasons Restaurant, located a couple of miles away from Harland Sanders Cafe along the main drag in downtown Corbin.
“Everything’s a little more hurried in fast food,” said Hensley, a cook and co-owner at the bustling restaurant. “We double-coat ours, sometimes three times if we have to, just to get that good thick layer. It’s crispy, fried in the old iron skillet or sometimes we’ll deep-fry it to get that coating stuck on it really pretty. And then we’ll finish it off in the convection oven.”
The only downside to the best chicken in Corbin is that it’s not on the menu every day. It’s a special offered roughly once a week, priced at $19.99. It takes about 30 minutes to prepare but is definitely worth the wait. The mouth-watering, Southern-style meal comes with homemade fixings like mashed potatoes and gravy, biscuits, corn pudding, fried stuffing and green beans.
Just up the street is the city’s tribute to its most famous son. Sanders Park, which debuted last year, features another statue of the restaurateur. The most interesting feature, however, is the park’s herb garden. Gardeners could only guess about what to plant, given that KFC has gone to extreme lengths to keep the Colonel’s recipe under wraps. The garden includes chives, oregano, tarragon and thyme.
Just like KFC’s parent company, Yum! Brands, Hensley is loath to share the recipe for his fried chicken.
“Ours is a secret, too,” he said with a chuckle. “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine.”
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
IF YOU GO
Harland Sanders Cafe and Museum: 688 U.S. Highway 25, Corbin, Ky.; 606-528-2163.
Seasons Restaurant: 313 S. Main St.; 606-528-1298. Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday and for dinner Thursday-Saturday. Be sure to call ahead to find out when the fried chicken is on the menu.
Sanders Park: 201 S. Main St.
Corbin visitor info: www.corbinkytourism.com
Get inspired to get away.
Explore California, the West and beyond with the weekly Escapes newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.