Halfway along its southbound journey from the Detroit to Florida, US Route 25 splits into two. On the map I am gazing at, the effect looks rather like a wishbone. Which is appropriate, since I am inside the modest roadside stop that is the birthplace of KFC.
The location: Corbin, Kentucky, a small town amid the gentle, wooded hills of southern Kentucky. And the most celebrated Corbinite is Harland D Sanders.
Colonel Sanders, as he later became, was “the original celebrity chef”, at least according to the emphatically red and white museum occupying the Sanders Cafe. Today it is a shrine to the man, his “secret recipe” for Kentucky Fried Chicken – and his shrewd business sense.
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A century ago, travellers heading south from Michigan’s Motor City passed through dozens of anonymous small towns. Corbin was different: this was where Route 25 divided into two. Motorists heading for Florida’s Atlantic seaboard chose the east fork, those aiming for the Gulf coast of the Sunshine State went west.
A good place, then, to pause. In 1930, the 40-year-old entrepreneur set up a gas station, called Sanders Servistation. In the days of leaky tyres, Sanders coined a marketing gimmick: “free air”. And he served motorists while wearing a bow tie.
A year later Sander expanded his modest empire across the road. He created Sanders Court, comprising a small restaurant and a motel. The speciality was spiced fried chicken.
For a couple of decades, the plump-cheeked purveyor of poultry thrived on America’s growing wealth, mobility and propensity to travel.
Sanders also build an adjacent motel. Standardised budget accommodation was still in its infancy. So to drive sales, the bespectacled businessman placed a mock-up of a motel room in the dining area, so people could see what was on offer.
The state government awarded him the honorary title of “colonel”. Even though much of his creation was destroyed by fire in 1939, he bounced back in 1940 with “pressure fried chicken” as the house speciality.
But Highway 25 was getting busy. In 1956, by which time Sanders was 66, the government in Washington DC decided to bypass Corbin. The previous year McDonalds had sold their first franchise for a burger restaurant in Des Plaines Iowa. Sanders embarked on a sales tour for his own fast food franchise. And never looked back. KFC reached the UK in 1965 and, continuing its globe-girdling, Rwanda in 2019.
Today the motel has gone, and the original restaurant is a museum of social history. But a plaque outside on Route 25 praises Sanders as “Kentucky’s greatest goodwill ambassador” and making the state “a household word around the world”.
Whatever you think about the impact of fast food on the planet – and its poultry – Corbin is worth a detour from Interstate 75, the highway that put Route 25 in the shade.
Simon Calder paid £545 return on Virgin Atlantic and Delta to fly outbound from London Heathrow via Atlanta to Greenville, South Carolina and back from Louisville, Kentucky – also via Atlanta.
Sanders Café and Museum, 688 US Route 25 West, opens 10am-10pm daily.
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