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50 years of finger-lickin’ chicken

‘Pete’ Harman started KFC right here in Salt Lake City

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Aug. 4 marks 50 years since Leon "Pete" Harman had the words "Kentucky Fried Chicken" painted on the windows of his restaurant at 3890 S. State.

He almost called it "Utah Fried Chicken," but thought "Kentucky" had an image of Southern hospitality.

At the time, Harman just wanted to let folks know about his new menu item; he had no idea of the impact it would have on eating trends. Today, the slogan "finger-lickin' good" and the red-and-white bucket are a permanent part of Americana.

On July 20, 83-year-old Harman greeted well-wishers at that very first KFC and signed copies of "Secret Recipe," a company biography. And although Harland Sanders created the chicken coating with those mysterious 11 herbs and spices, Harman is "the man behind the bucket," according to author Robert Darnden.

Harman was born in Granger, which is now part of West Valley City. His mother, Grace, died of pneumonia two days later, leaving his father with nine children. A year later, Pete's father married his brother's widow, Caroline Hemenway Harmon, who already had six children. Four years later, Pete's father died, and "Aunt Carrie" pulled the family together to make a living on the farm. (Years later, Harman donated a building on the Brigham Young University campus, which is named in her honor.)

At 15, Harman worked his way to San Francisco, landed a job as a dishwasher and climbed up through the ranks of the restaurant business. In 1941, he returned to Salt Lake City with his wife, Arline, and opened the "Do Drop In," which was later renamed "Harman Cafe."

At a restaurant convention in Chicago, the Harmans met Harland Sanders, who mentioned he had perfected a recipe for fried chicken. Sanders was born in southern Indiana in 1890 and left home at age 12. He tried a variety of jobs with limited success until he opened a truck stop/restaurant in Corbin, Ky. The restaurant that was so popular that one customer, Gov. Ruby Laffoon, named Sanders an honorary Kentucky colonel to recognize his contribution to the state's cuisine. After that, Sanders cultivated what he thought was a proper "Colonel" image — white linen suit, string tie and goatee.

Sanders experimented with fried chicken using a pressure cooker, along with a coating recipe of 10 herbs and spices. In 1950, he added the 11th spice, to the approval of his daughter, Margaret. She said that Sanders wrote his "secret" list of spices above the door jamb where no one else would think to look. If anything happened to him, only she would know how to make it.

A year after meeting the Harmans, the Colonel traveled to a religious conference in Australia. He had a short stop in Utah, so he looked them up. "I took him to Hotel Utah's Roof Garden for lunch, and through the Salt Lake Temple grounds and the Bingham Copper Mine," Harman recalled during an interview with the Deseret News. "On the way out there, we mentioned we needed some kind of a specialty item for the restaurant."

Harman planned to take his guest out to dinner, but Sanders insisted on cooking it. It took a while to borrow the pressure cooker, find four chickens and heat the oil to the necessary 400 degrees. "We ended up having dinner at 10, and my wife had been sitting out there since 5 o'clock," said Harman.

He watched when Arline picked up a drumstick and took a taste of it. "She never said anything, but she got the darndest gleam in her eye, and I knew it was good," Harman said. "It was so much better than any chicken we'd ever had."

With a handshake agreement, the couple agreed use Sanders' recipe on their menu and pay him a nickel for each chicken they sold.

Harman wanted to advertise the chicken on the cafe's 10-foot-high windows, but he wasn't sure what to call it. He conferred with his sign painter, Don Anderson, who agreed that Utah Fried Chicken didn't sound right. "Kentucky" had an image of Southern hospitality and good food.

The first chicken dinners — three pieces of chicken, fries and a biscuit — sold for $1.

Harman struck an advertising deal with KMUR radio to buy all the station's unsold air time for a flat fee. When the Colonel got back from Australia, there were waiting lines at the cafe. Harman arranged a five-minute radio interview for Sanders, who took up the whole hour.

"He was a real charmer!" Harman said with a laugh.

On the heels of Harman's success, Sanders sold a few franchises to other restaurant owners, including Dave Thomas, who later founded Wendy's. "But most of the restaurants buried it in their menu, rather than making it the restaurant's specialty," said Harman.

Then, a new interstate highway bypassed the Colonel's truck stop and took his customer base. He was forced to sell his restaurant. He was now 65, with only a $105-per month social-security check to live on. In his biography, "Finger Lickin' Good," Sanders said he prayed for help.

It came in the form of a red-and-white bucket. It was that bucket that helped usher in America's quick-serve, drive-through food industry. "A guy in Colorado had bought 500 buckets and didn't know what to do with them, so the Colonel asked us if we wanted to take them off his hands," Harman said. "I wanted to get rid of them quickly, so we filled them with 14 pieces of chicken, five rolls and a pint of gravy, and sold it for $3.50."

Harman got the word out through TV, radio and billboard ads. In Utah, where large families were the norm, the take-home meal was an instant hit. When the restaurant sold 300 buckets in two days, Sanders realized their value. He also knew they would be gone before he could get in a new shipment from Los Angeles.

Sanders called Lynn Wilson of the Utah food company, and asked to buy 200 large buckets. Wilson warned him that his buckets were waxed inside to hold salads — and wax would melt on hot chicken.

"So we tipped them upside down on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven to melt the wax off," Harman said. "And we made sure we never ran out again."

The take-out bucket was on the cutting edge of the era's dining trends. The car-buying boom of the '50s fueled the creation of "drive-in" restaurants. The TV dinner underscored the popularity of television. Also, a growing number of women were joining the work force. Now they could bring home a bucket of chicken from the drive-through, and the family could eat while watching TV. "Now, about 40 percent of our business goes out in buckets," Harman said.

Over the years, KFC has followed other trends with mixed results — hot wings, extra-crispy chicken, pot pies — even Kentucky Roast Beef. Skin-free, Rotisserie Gold and Tender Roast chicken were answers to the low-fat frenzy of the '90s. But only the Tender Roast sandwich remains on the menu. "People eat healthy at home, but when they go out, it's taste they want, and the original recipe is still No. 1," said Vern Wardle, vice-president of operations for Harman Management Corp.

"We would love to have non-fried items on the menu, but the customers don't perceive us that way; they go somewhere else for those things," said Jackie Trujillo, Harman Management's chairman of the board. "We will continue to try things, but you have to sell enough to keep the product fresh and make money."

Trujillo is another KFC success story. She started at the Harman Cafe as a car hop to earn money for college. She ended up lending her savings to her cash-strapped brother and kept working. As the company grew, she created an employee-training program and wrote the first operations manual that was adopted by KFC's corporate offices in 1963. Today, Trujillo is chairman of the board of Harman Management, which owns 307 KFC outlets.

In the past few years, the company has tried "dual branding" — sharing space with Taco Bell, Pizza Hut or A&W restaurants. "We get a different crowd with A&W," said Harman. "A lot of our afternoon and late-night business comes from people who don't want a full meal, they want root beer with a couple scoops of ice cream in it."

Harman said the slogan "finger-lickin' good" came from his brother, Dave, who opened a restaurant selling Kentucky Fried Chicken in Phoenix. He would take a plate of chicken down to the TV station and eat it in the background while his manager, Ken Harbough, did the restaurant's advertisements.

"One day a woman phoned up — just as mad as the devil," said Harman, "and told the manager, 'That Mr. Harman is licking his fingers!' Ken spontaneously said, 'Well, it's finger lickin' good!' "

A tasty product, marketing savvy and quality control are only part of the KFC story, Harman said. "What really worked was the delightful labor force in Utah," he said. "People believe in working, and they're friendly — that's the culture that got KFC off the ground and into the whole world."

E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com