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Eating the Past: Utah's Kentucky Fried Chicken empire

A KFC chicken sandwich.
Hello I'm Nik

Hello, this is Tammy Proctor, and today we continue our culinary tour of the U.S. by looking at the origins of the popular Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise ... in Salt Lake City, Utah. Yes, the KFC we know today made its first appearance in the land of Zion. Joining me today to talk about this history is professor Laura Gelfand from Utah State University's Department of Art and Design. Laura is a native of Salt Lake City and has a peculiar attachment to the tubs of fried goodness.

Tammy: Welcome, Laura, and thanks for joining me. Tell us why in the world KFC originated in Salt Lake. Wasn't Colonel Sanders from Kentucky? I'm confused.

Laura: Thanks for having me, Tammy. Extensive internet research reveals that Kentucky Fried Chicken started in Utah thanks to an enterprising couple, Arline and Pete Harman. They opened a restaurant called Harman’s Café on 39th and State Street in Salt Lake in 1951. Pete Harman met the Colonel in Chicago, and Sanders visited the Harmans the following year. When he cooked up a batch of his secret recipe for chicken for them, Pete Harman jumped at the opportunity to purchase the first franchise.

When Sanders visited Utah, he was traveling across the U.S. looking for people to buy his recipe for chicken cooked in a pressure fryer that he invented in 1940 and sold at his own roadside stand for many years.

Pete Harman bought the first franchise and started offering the Colonel’s secret recipe to Utahns who ate it up. Harman hired a sign painter named Anderson to advertise the chicken and he’s the one who came up with the name “Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Later Harman would also trademark the phrase “finger lickin’ good.” Harman’s business increased 75% the first year he started offering the Colonel’s chicken, and selling chicken differentiated the restaurant from its competition. It was cheap, and the Southern origins of the recipe made it seem simultaneously foreign, authentic and packed with gracious charm.

I do want to point out that Colonel Harland Sanders never spent any time in the military; His title was an honorific awarded to him twice by governors of Kentucky.

Tammy: I know that KFC is seen as an innovator in fast food franchising. Why is that, and was there something specific to its Utah location that made expansion possible?

Laura: Utah was a perfect place to start this. I mean, look at Logan: Many Utahs still prefer the predictability and affordability of chain restaurants to the potential for unpleasant surprises in smaller places. If you’ve got a large family to feed, you want something cheap and filling. Ideally the place also offers a reassuringly similar experience every time, and food that is exactly the same each time you visit. I think in its earliest incarnation, Harman's Café and its fried chicken perfectly fit the desires and expectations of local customers. It was the right place and the right time.

Utah has a marked penchant for pyramid schemes, and franchises are a variation on that theme. Maybe this native prediliction also helped launch this huge franchise?

Tammy: Okay, here's a central question. Why do people love KFC so much? I don't really see the attraction.

Laura: Honestly, like you, I don’t eat meat now, but as a kid, going to Harman’s Café and eating KFC was a thrill. My parents were sophisticated, they had moved to Utah from big cities and they made wonderful, interesting, adventurous food. All i wanted was something junky and normal. You may not like KFC, and I definitely wouldn’t eat it now, but I loved, loved it as a kid. That crispy skin, the grease, the salt, the secret herbs and spices, it was all so comfortingly predictable and exotic to me. Secretly, I think my dad also really liked KFC too.

Tammy: Is there anything else we need to know about KFC and your fascination with it?

Laura: Well, truthfully, the whole reason we are doing this interview is because you know that I am originally from Salt Lake, and that I have always sworn that for my last meal I would choose KFC. In addition, my husband and I have always joked that if he comes home to find me eating KFC, it means I have received a terminal diagnosis. So, there’s that.

Tammy: Thanks to Professor Laura Gelfand for joining me today to talk about Utah's chicken history.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.