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Harlan Sanders & Clarence Birdseye: Turning Points in American Diet

Updated on May 8, 2012
Clarence Birdseye
Clarence Birdseye
Birdeye's flash freezing invention 1927
Birdeye's flash freezing invention 1927
Harlan Sanders in 1964
Harlan Sanders in 1964
The first KFC in 1935
The first KFC in 1935

Everyday, Americans visit the grocery store, go into the freezer section and pull a bag of frozen peas, corn, broccoli or other items. For most, the word "Birdseye" means nothing and think it is the brand name. None know that it was Clarence Birdseye that brought frozen food to America and the world. Others from around the world, go for some fried chicken at one of the thousands of Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets. Few realize that Harlan Sanders is the man that started fast food in America.

At age 40, Sanders was running a service station in Kentucky where he would also feed hungry travelers. He eventually moved his operation to a restaurant across the street, and featured a fried chicken so notable that Sanders was named a Kentucky Colonel in 1935

Harlan was 65 yrs. old when the franchising idea popped into his head in 1952. He had been farmer, a streetcar conductor and had owned a restaurant since 1929 in Corbin, Ky. In the 1950's, America begin buildings national highway system based on German autobahns. These roads would cross America and Harlan saw how cars and travel would also need food. His recipe was the now famous fried chicken with 11 herbs and spices. As the popularity of the chicken increased, he opened the first restaurant in 1935. His next idea was to franchise his food to restaurants along the highway. He drove his Cadillac wearing a white suit and string tie as he talked with customers and made sure the cooking was correct. He would make a nickel for each chicken. While it was a success, it was sold to John Brown, who became governor of the state. The fast food chains all with the Colonel's image was his idea. As fast food restaurants were built, the icon Colonel Sanders and the bucket signs appeared. Harlan Sanders image remains today. It is Americana like Santa Claus. By 1966, over 600 franchises were spread across the US. Sanders sold all his interest in the company for two million. by 1972, there were 3500 franchises. Harlan died in 1980.

Clarence Birdseye was an outdoors man. He loved nature and had 200 patents under his name. Prior to frozen foods, that is pre-1920, food was canned, dried, salted or smoked. There were frozen attempts but the food turned mushy and blah when defrosted.Flash freezing popped into his head while fishing with the Inuit in Labrador during the winter. He noticed how when a fish was caught and then put into minus 40 F degree air, it instantly froze. The fish would remain fresh for months. In 1922, Birdseye conducted fish-freezing experiments and established his own company, Birdseye Seafoods Inc., to freeze fish fillets with chilled air at -45°F. In 1924 his company went bankrupt for lack of consumer interest in the product. He quickly created a freezing process under pressure where fish in cartons could be instantly freezed. The double belt freezer had two chilled stainless steel belts carrying packaged fish, freezing the fish quickly. By 1927, he began freezing meats, vegetables and fruit. In 1929, he sold the invention to General Foods for $22 million. By now, the large store freezers began to appear in grocery stores.

General foods began selling frozen food in 18 stores in 1930. It was a test to see how consumers would respond. Once a success, frozen food became available worldwide.


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    • perrya profile image

      perrya 5 years ago

      I always liked the Coleslaw also. the chicken is a bit too greasy for me now.

    • profile image

      Jayfort 5 years ago

      I remember when KFC first came to Kingman, AZ in the mid-60s (Route 66, later I-40). Mom and Dad thought it was interesting to purchase a bucket of chicken with sides of mashed potatoes, gravy (yum!), and coleslaw (yuck!). Because we lived about 30 miles east of Kingman, KFC was a rare but enjoyable treat.

      Good job, Perry!