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Colonel’s landmark KFC is mashed

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If Leon "Pete" Harman hadn't had the good sense not to rename his burger joint "Utah Fried Chicken," his alliance 52 years ago with pressure-cooker and secret-herbs-and-spices impresario Colonel Harland Sanders might have been nothing but a dim family memory.

Instead, in August 1952, Harman painted the words "Kentucky Fried Chicken" on his State Street cafe and began selling Sanders' crispy fried chicken by the bucketful.

On Tuesday, that first KFC restaurant in the world was a pile of rubble, the familiar sign bearing the colonel's smiling face upside-down atop it. But by early August, KFC will be reborn on the same spot as a restaurant and museum that will tell how those buckets of chicken came to be sold at nearly 12,000 restaurants around the globe, generating annual sales of around $10 billion.

"The building served its purpose for many, many years," said Tracy Gingell, owner and manager of the historic restaurant, 3890 S. State. "We wanted to upgrade it and build a modern KFC there. We wanted it to be attractive for our customers."

Still, Gingell said seeing the building come down Tuesday tugged at his heart.

"It was quite emotional," he said. "I've been married 3 1/2 years, and I met my wife there. I've got two kids that work there, and my wife's sister. . . .We had customers who'd been coming in for 50 years, some who had met Colonel Sanders and Pete Harman. They'd tell us stories of wedding breakfasts they'd had there and first dates. It's incredible, the loyalty of our customers."

The new restaurant will pay tribute to that history, KFC officials said Tuesday.

"We're definitely proud of our heritage in Utah," said James Jackson, chief financial officer for Harman's KFC Corp., based in Los Altos, Calif.

It's an oft-told story how Sanders, an acquaintance just passing through Salt Lake City, persuaded Harman to let him serve a chicken dinner at his burger joint. Harman in turn invented the now-iconic paper bucket. For $3.50, he filled them with 14 pieces of chicken, mashed potatoes, rolls and gravy and struggled to keep up with customer demand.

Over those decades, bits of history have accumulated, Jackson said. The new 4,000-square-foot KFC will display a narrative of the story on the walls with photos of Harman and Sanders together, vintage pictures of the restaurant, early menus and the familiar full-size fiberglass statue of Sanders that can be posed sitting in a chair or on a bench.

"It's memorabilia that helps people remember KFC's roots in Utah," Jackson said.

Even some of the first franchise's original pressure cookers will be on display. Of course, now the pressure cookers are computerized. "Everything is regulated so it ensures the quality product time after time after time," Jackson said.

"That was one of Colonel Sanders' secrets," Jackson said. "He was one of the first people to actually cook chicken in a pressure cooker."

Sanders perfected his technique in the late 1930s and sold his food to patrons of his service station in Corbin, Ky. A Kentucky governor bestowed on Sanders the honorific "colonel."

Sanders died in 1980 at the age of 80.

Harman, now 85 and living in Los Altos, is expected at the grand opening of the new Salt Lake restaurant, Jackson said.

Because of the Salt Lake establishment's special status in fried-chicken history, it remains a franchise of Harman's KFC. All the others are clients of Yum! Brands Inc.; Taco Bell and Pizza Hut also are under the Yum! Brands umbrella.

The recipe for the colonel's secret blend of 11 herbs and spices remains locked in a vault at KFC headquarters in Louisville, Ky.

In Salt Lake City, Gingell said he hopes to be open for business again in 90 days, in time to celebrate the Aug. 4 anniversary of the original agreement between Harman and Sanders.

"The handshake between Pete Harmon and Colonel Sanders took place in 1952, so 52 years later, we want to celebrate our grand re-opening," Gingell said. "We'll be back, bigger and better than ever."

E-mail: jnii@desnews.com