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About Utah: Story of first KFC shows anything can happen

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SALT LAKE CITY — As iconic landmarks go, even in its remodeled state as a pseudo museum/cafe, it is rather nondescript. A fast food restaurant on steroids.

But if it weren't for what happened here at the corner of 3900 South and State Street — smack in the heart of the Salt Lake Valley and a good 1,500 miles from Kentucky — it's entirely probable that the world would never have experienced the soothing southern comfort of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

As Tracy Gingell, manager of Harman Café/KFC, puts it: "Had the Colonel not met Pete, he'd have probably died a poor man."

"He" meaning Colonel Harland Sanders, and "Pete" meaning Utah native Leon W. "Pete" Harman.

The story has been told and re-told — not to mention preserved in the book "Secret Recipe" — but there's always room to tell it again, if for no other reason than the constant reminder that amazing things can happen anytime, anywhere.

The epochal moment occurred nearly 60 years ago, on Aug. 3, 1952, when Colonel Harland Sanders of Corbin, Kentucky, arrived in Utah to visit Pete Harman and his wife, Arline.

Pete and the Colonel had met the year before at the National Restaurant Association convention in Chicago. Both men owned and operated small restaurants that carried their names – Harman Café in Salt Lake City and Sanders Cafe in Corbin.

The Colonel was on his way to a Christian retreat in Australia when he passed through Salt Lake City specifically to see Pete again.

When he arrived at their doorstep, Pete and Arline suggested that they take him out to dinner that night. As Bob Harman, Pete's nephew, remembers, their plan was to show off the Wasatch mountains by taking their visitor to the Log Haven restaurant in Millcreek Canyon.

But the Colonel had other plans. He wanted the Harmans to taste his special fried chicken with its secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices in the hopes they might, for a small surcharge, consider serving it in their cafe. All he needed, he told them, was some chickens, herbs and spices, and a pressure cooker.

Pete went to his brother Jake's grocery store and bought the chickens (Jake later slightly altered the spelling of his last name and his store evolved into the Harmons supermarket chain), Arline showed the Colonel where she kept her spices, and for the pressure cooker, Pete borrowed one from Nila Washam, aka "Aunt Marge."

Then the Colonel got busy in the Harman's kitchen.

The next thing anyone knew, they were all licking their fingers.

Colonel Sanders continued on to Australia the following morning, while Pete went straight to the restaurant and did two things: 1) He put the Colonel's fried chicken on the menu, and 2) he asked his friend and sign-painter Don Anderson to advertise the new menu item on the cafe windows.

"What do you think we should call it?" Pete asked Don, setting up the historic moment.

"Well, he's from Kentucky and it's fried chicken," said Don. "How about Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

They didn't think to copyright the name, they didn't even stop to take a picture — but Harman Café did become the Colonel's first franchisee.

Two weeks later, when the Colonel returned to Utah on his way back to Kentucky, he stopped by Harman Café and saw cars lined up down the street, waiting to order Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The success at the corner of 3900 South and State motivated Colonel Sanders to set about franchising his fried chicken at restaurants from coast to coast, followed by continent to continent. (In 2012 there are KFC franchises in every U.S. state and more than 80 countries worldwide, serving in excess of a billion chicken dinners annually — one for every seven people on the planet).

Colonel Sanders and the Harmans remained close friends until the Colonel died, at the age of 90, in 1980.

Pete and Arline, now both in their 90s, are still alive and living in California. They own and operate more than 300 KFC franchises in Utah, California, Nevada and Washington.

To this day, nearly 60 years later, every KFC franchise in Utah is Harman-run. Much like an aspen tree, they're everywhere, but the roots all trace back to the same source.

And that source is on 39th and State — where the restaurant still bears the Harman name out front, and features a statue of the Colonel and Pete in the courtyard.

It's the only KFC in existence where, without fail, every customer gets the same greeting:

"Welcome to the world's first KFC."

And they're not kidding.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.