Leon Weston “Pete” Harman passed away on Nov. 19 in northern California, where he and his wife Arline had retired after leaving their beloved restaurant business. Born and raised in neighboring West Valley City (before it was incorporated), Harman was a dear friend to the city of Taylorsville, particularly as a benefactor for the Taylorsville City Cemetery.
He was best known professionally as the first person to open a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in August 1952, shortly after he met and became friends with Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC. Their story of friendship and business development is legendary. Harman was buried in the Taylorsville City Cemetery next to his wife Arline, who passed in 2013.
“As a kid, my dad used to talk to Pete often, because they had been longtime friends,” said Lee Bennion, cemetery sexton. “Pete actually bought my 4H beef cow one year, and he was always interested in helping with the upkeep of the cemetery, especially when we had fundraisers.”
Bennion said that over the years, Harman donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cemetery.
“If I was running short, I’d contact him and he’d always ask, ‘How much?’ I’d give him a figure, and he’d say, ‘Are you sure that’s enough?’ and then send more than I’d asked. He helped us so many times with our expenses.”
The Harmans met the Sanders in 1951 at the National Restaurant Association convention in Chicago. Sanders and his wife Claudia were reportedly appalled by the conduct of most of the conventioneers—drinking, smoking, partying—things the Sanders hated. So they were drawn to Pete and Arline, a young Mormon couple.
“Despite their age differences (the Colonel was 61 and Harman was 32), they struck up an instant and enduring friendship,” wrote author Robert Darden in his 2002 biography of Sanders called “Secret Recipe.”
A year later, when Sanders was enroute to a Christian church conference in Australia, he stopped in Salt Lake City to visit his new friends. At the Do Drop Inn (Harman’s café) on 3900 South and State Street, Harman told the Colonel that he was looking for a specialty dish for his restaurant. Sanders offered to make the Harmans dinner that night, then tracked down a pressure cooker, garnered some spices from a couple of local stores, and set out to cook his famous fried chicken (it wasn’t ready to be served until 10 p.m.).
After a just a few bites, Harman was hooked, and, even as Sanders left the city for his trip, the Harmans were buying pressure cookers and preparing to sell “Kentucky Fried Chicken” at the Do Drop. With the Colonel’s blessing, the Harmans opened a second location in Sugar House in 1953 called “Harman’s Café.” When Sanders officially launched the KFC franchise in 1955, Harman was the company’s first franchisee. He remained a loyal and trusted confidant of Sanders right up to the time when the Colonel sold the company years later.
It was Harman who created the idea of the “bucket” that has become a symbol of the company. When Harland Sanders died in 1980, Harman became the father figure for the corporation.
“It is no exaggeration to say that while there would be no KFC as we know it without the Colonel, there would also be no KFC as we know it without Pete Harman,” said Mike Miles, one-time leader of the KFC corporation.
Harman’s management company is still going strong, responsible for over 250 KFC stores in several states, and employer of more than 4,000.
When Darden wrote his book, though Harman was no longer giving interviews per se, he was quoted once by the author.
“I hope that I’ll be remembered as being fair,” he said, “particularly in our own company. Arline and I have made a lot of money, and we’ve put a lot of that money into some places that we believed needed it. Money is only good if you do good with it.”
In the case of the Taylorsville City Cemetery, that has certainly proven true.