Corbin, Ky. — Located in North Corbin, Ky., the Sanders Cafe is a historic restaurant and museum widely recognized by enthusiasts throughout the globe as the birthplace of the now-famous fast food restaurant chain, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Operated by Harland Sanders in the 1940s, the site rose to prominence for the conception of the famous KFC secret recipe and has since been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today, the Sanders Cafe, owned and operated by JRN, Inc., stands as a restaurant and museum that invites fans of the KFC Brand to immerse themselves in memorabilia and tour the site that started it all. To keep up with the Colonel’s innovative spirit, Kentucky Fried Chicken enlisted global design, architecture, and strategy firm NELSON Worldwide to reimagine the space into a modern and fresh take on the fast-casual dining brand.
The Sanders Cafe honors the past while embracing storytelling touchpoints, creating meaningful connections, and fostering shareable moments for today’s and tomorrow’s guests. Tasked with providing a curated guest experience spread across the Colonel’s original campus, NELSON Worldwide delivered a unique “Return to Roadside” design approach.
“For KFC’s Sanders Cafe, we built upon the current design, adding modern and interactive elements while respecting and emphasizing historical spaces. Our approach was mindful of creating ‘sympathetic additions’ that would not take from the existing charm and heritage of the space — this is where the Colonel crafted his secret recipe after all,” says Garrett Rice, design director at NELSON Worldwide. “It was important to create a curated guest experience that makes Sanders Cafe destination-worthy, all while telling the brand’s story.”
As a staple of Corbin, Ky., for generations, the Sanders Cafe dining room pays homage to the historic elements within the site. The reimagined space leverages iconic signage and historically-inspired lighting to provide a more dramatic presentation, and also incorporates additional seating options. To emphasize the mid-century look, wormy chestnut paneling from the original dining room has been kept to embellish and stay on par with the warm and inviting look that the Colonel intended for the room.
To elevate the Sanders Cafe museum display and exhibit experience, the design team integrated an engaging, low-tech display with interactive overlays that enhance the KFC storyline. As guests make their way through the museum, artifacts have been purposefully arranged to express the timeline as a thread to the overall story. Throughout the space, photo-ops have been embedded to provide guests with a touchless experience, while also capturing moments of excitement as they navigate through the famous establishment. Clean expressions are consistent within and keep the attention on the artifacts and ensure a more immersive connection with the space, while also providing a contrast to the historic dining room. To add impact to this connection, guests have the opportunity to walk through room vignettes to enhance the sense of belonging.
A step away from the museum display and exhibit is Colonel Harland Sanders’ iconic sitting room. Drawing inspiration from the Colonel’s adjacent home, the design team provided an additional thematic dining experience as a balanced counterpoint to the original historic Sanders Cafe. Mid-century design elements, retro-inspired furniture selections and expressions now dimensionalize a more playful side of Colonel Sanders’ personality and cast a spotlight on a residential aesthetic. A large screen has been inserted into the wall and invites guests to sit down for a few minutes to watch a short presentation on Kentucky Fried Chicken’s history and humor in advertising throughout the years.
A test kitchen is also integrated into the space. Known as “Colonel’s test kitchen,” it offers a glimpse into the experimentation process, paying homage to the process of perfecting the Colonel’s recipe.
SOURCE: NELSON Worldwide