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  • Writer's pictureRuby's Winding Road

A Fried Chicken Story: Exploring Sanders Cafe and Museum

"Get a bucket of chicken, finger lickin' good! Have a barrel of fun. Goodbye ho-hum!"

I just couldn't help myself. A 1970s jingle for Kentucky Fried Chicken that I learned as a kid spilled through my lips as we pulled into the Sanders Cafe and Museum in Corbin, Kentucky, along U.S. 25 West. When I sing, my husband, John, usually says I need a bucket to carry my tune in... amazingly, they have oodles of buckets here! In fact, there's a colossal bucket atop the Kentucky Fried Chicken sign out front!

A view of Kentucky Fried Chicken signs at the Sanders Cafe and Museum.
Colonel Sanders first started serving hungry travelers here in Corbin, Kentucky.

Of course, not many people say Kentucky Fried Chicken anymore; too descriptive, too many syllables, and too many letters I suppose. Across the country, it's often just KFC now. That aside, it's all about the fried chicken here in Corbin. Specifically, the fried chicken made with a famous "Secret Recipe" that includes a blend of eleven herbs and spices originally mixed together by Colonel Harland Sanders.

Colonel Sanders (1890-1980), of course, is the fella known for wearing that spiffy white suit and black string bow tie featured in much of KFC's advertising and on its packaging. Before becoming a famous fried chicken restaurateur, however, Sanders had a number of other occupations. While visiting the museum, we learned that he worked on a farm, sold insurance, and operated a ferry boat among other things.

It was after he moved to Corbin, Kentucky in 1930 that Sanders pumped gasoline for a living. The service station was located across the street from the present Sanders Cafe and Museum where we stopped for our visit. Sanders soon mixed his love of cooking with the flow of hungry travelers in need of nourishment. From the back of the filling station, Sanders served up meals. One thing led to another and a restaurant was born. His success led the governor of Kentucky to commission Sanders an honorary Kentucky Colonel in 1935. Then, after a fire destroyed his restaurant, Colonel Sanders rebuilt his cafe and added a motel into the mix.

A museum display highlighting dishes, utensils, meal order tickets and a glimpse into how the Cafe originally appeared.
Sanders Court and Cafe highlighted as part of museum displays.

Time changes a lot of things and by the mid-1950s, Colonel Sanders shifted gears. He sold his cafe because improvements to the highway system reduced the number of motorists traveling past his business. He instead franchised his fried chicken business. It was the beginning to what would eventually become one of the most well-known food chains in the world... Kentucky Fried Chicken, known to some as KFC.

Colonel Sanders eventually sold Kentucky Fried Chicken but remained a brand ambassador. His story and the evolution of the KFC brand is described throughout the museum displays at the Sanders Cafe and Museum.

While the motel is no longer standing, the Cafe is still in place and has been restored. Guests can eat in the historic dining area, stroll through interesting displays, and have a look at the kitchen area where Sanders perfected his chicken recipe and pressure frying process.

The museum experience starts even before making your way into the building. Milling around in the parking lot with other curious guests, we looked over some nicely restored gasoline pumps, read display signs about Colonel Sanders, the property's history, and snapped some photos. It didn't seem to matter that dark clouds were rolling in and rain drops were making their way to the ground as we stood outside. "It all started here" read a sign at the entrance and in that moment, we were just glad to enjoy the history of the location.

The Sanders Cafe and Museum is an interesting place to visit. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's also an operating KFC. You can order a bucket of chicken, some biscuits and all the fixings while you visit. There's a drive through, but if you've never been to the Sanders Cafe and Museum, go inside for your feast. Take a seat in the cafe's restored original dining room and enjoy your meal surrounded by KFC history. The food, if you choose to order some, is the only thing you'll be charged for while there (unless you want to purchase a souvenir t-shirt). There is no fee to walk around to view the museum displays. Take as long as you wish. Nobody at the museum cares to rush you through.

Of course, our pup travels with us, so we went inside individually to look around. Upon entering the lobby area, you'll find the famous white suit worn by Colonel Sanders. There are photographs of Colonel Sanders and his wife, a belt buckle, watch, letters, and other personal memorabilia.

Continue through and you'll find historic features of the building including a restored "Model Motel Room" that Colonel Sanders set up to encourage travelers to stay at his motel. There's a 1940s kitchen on display. Much of the original equipment used in Sanders Cafe was sold at auction decades ago, but the museum designers used the model numbers in the auction flyer to acquire the same/similar items that were once used in the Colonel's kitchen. According to museum informational boards, one piece of surviving equipment is the original mirrored refrigerator door. It's on display.

Interestingly, a three-handed clock hangs on the wall. It's said the Colonel used the unusual clock to time his multiple pots of frying chicken. An extra minute hand, according to the museum display, follows nine minutes behind the first minute hand. It's said the Colonel used a grease pencil to write the start time on each pot. Nine minutes was the magic cooking time. Simply perfect!

The museum also shows off various packaging and marketing materials used throughout the years, including the famous buckets used by customers to carry home their batches of fried chicken. I remember my mom occasionally bringing home a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner when I was a kid. Exciting times those were!

While we were at the Sanders Cafe and Museum, people were ordering food, eating meals in the dining areas, strolling around to look at the displays and getting excited about past promotional items. The Star Wars promotional items, especially, caught the attention of a group of teens who seemed quite enthused. People of all ages were having their photos taken with a couple of life-sized Colonel Sanders statues. Everyone seemed to be in pretty good spirits and having fun.

After being absorbed in fried chicken history for a bit, how could we visit the Sanders Cafe and Museum as hungry travelers and not order some? So, we did. It was just the way the Colonel intended.

This location offers modern KFC menu selections. Honestly, we hadn't had KFC in quite a while and had to review the menu items. We just don't eat a whole lot of fast food these days. Especially since our RV has its own fridge stocked with sandwich fixing and such. Nonetheless, it was a "goodbye ho-hum" kind of fall afternoon!

Because we had our pup with us, we took our fried chicken and biscuits "to go" rather than eating in the museum dining room. Yeah, I know. It is what it is when traveling with your furry best friend. We drove just few miles down the road to the KOA campground and ate our comfort food in our RV as the rain fell and thunder boomed.

The Sanders Cafe and Museum is a fun stop to make if you're near Corbin and your belly is rumbling. Take your time and look around. You'll "have a finger lickin' bucket of fun!"

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