Two Saturdays ago, a French TV crew paid a visit to the Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise on Ulster Avenue. Reporter Clementine Mazoyer interviewed owner Darlene Pfeiffer about her meetings with Colonel Harland Sanders and the staff about the employee incentives and customer comment cards on the wall. She and cameraman Rudolph Darblay toured the kitchen to see how the food is cooked and filmed Pfeiffer as she walked into the store and chatted with employees.
If it seemed strange that the country that invented chicken cordon bleu and coq au vin should be interested in an American fast-food chain, apparently the culture is changing in France, according to Mazoyer. She said KFC is hugely popular over there, with 200 restaurants opening. (In a smart marketing ploy, KFC also sponsors the national soccer team.) Mazoyer and Darblay were at the Kingston KFC franchise not only because Pfeiffer is one of the most senior franchisees, having opened the Kingston store 50 years ago, and one of the most successful, but also because she personally knew Colonel Sanders, the founder.
Mazoyer and Darblay, who work for Paris-based STP Productions, had flown in the night before from Louisville, Ky., after visiting the location of Sanders’ first restaurant in the town of Corbin. The news segment will air in early September all over France.
“This is the first time I’ve been in a KFC in America,” said Mazoyer, noting that the side of coleslaw isn’t available in France. In Corbin, she interviewed Sanders biographer Robert Darden, “who talked about how Mrs. Pfeiffer and her two restaurants had met a lot of success. She’s been here since 1967 and was visited by Sanders a few times.
“Many people in the U.S. don’t know that Colonel Sanders was a real guy and he used his own self to market the company,” Mazoyer said. Added cameraman Darblay, “He’s like the American dream. He had a service station and surmounted all the odds to start his restaurant chain. He went broke trying to sell his recipe.”
As one of the first woman-owned franchisees, Pfeiffer herself, who was visited by Sanders at her Kingston and Poughkeepsie locations in 1977 and 1979 — numerous pictures of the two, some taken at the annual KFC conventions, hang in her Port Ewen office — forged new paths for women in business success and is a community leader who has funded and launched numerous educational initiatives in the area.
Pfeiffer, who was born in Ohio, traveled the world for 10 years as a flight attendant for TWA before getting married and moving to the area. Bored and looking for something to do, she became a franchisee after stopping at a KFC in Columbus, Ohio, during a road trip with her husband and meeting owner Dave Thomas, the future founder of Wendy’s, who encouraged her to get into the business. She had saved up $20,500 and opened in 1966 with five locations. However, the bank wouldn’t loan her money unless her husband took a 51 percent ownership stake, which he did.
The couple divorced after her husband acquired another four locations solely in his name. Meanwhile, she had attended SUNY New Paltz to complete her college education graduating summa cum laude. Pfeiffer got three of the original five franchisees and never looked back, becoming a KFC superstar. Last month she won an award for being number one in customer service, out of approximately 4,000 KFC restaurants.
She was the first woman to serve as the president of the Association of Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchisees — and was the only person to serve two terms — and led the multi-year-long franchisee lawsuit against Pepsico after the chain’s new corporate owner wanted to change the franchisees’ contract and compromise their territorial rights. Pfeiffer also created a magazine, called KFC Quarterly, as a communications tool for the franchisees, who finally won the suit in 1997.
Pfeiffer recalled that Sanders, who treated his franchisees like family, was relentless in sharing his cooking tips. On one visit, “the colonel had dinner at my house and asked to go back to the store to show the staff how to make the gravy,” she said.
“The colonel was very involved and caring. He loved the franchisees.”
She said the chicken is bought fresh, not frozen, and that his innovation, when he started serving meals to customers at his gas station during the Depression, was to use a pressure cooker to speed up the cooking time. The recipe, which involves sifting the flour used to coat the chicken multiple times and mixing it with certain spices, is a closely guarded secret; to the standard sides of mashed potatoes, gravy and cole slaw have been added mac and cheese and chicken pot pie. “I like to say ‘we’re not fast food but good food served fast.’”
Pfeiffer adopted a teenage boy who had worked for her and his 10-year-old sister after their mother died and remains very close to her surrogate daughter. She has been particularly generous in donating to education: she gives seven annual $1,000 scholarships to students attending Ulster Community College and launched the Darlene L. Pfeiffer Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at Ulster Community College, providing the funding and hiring the executive director. Two years ago she started an annual conference at the center, called Own It, aimed at women entrepreneurs; Silda Wall Spitzer, a successful businesswoman and ex-wife of the former governor, was the 2016 keynote speaker. In March, KFC honored her in Atlanta with a Lifetime Achievement Award thanks to her work in raising money for school scholarships.
Pfeiffer is listed in the book Remarkable Women in New York State History, sharing space with Sojourner Truth and Helen Hayes. Her desk and office walls are crammed with awards, certificates (including one naming her a Kentucky Colonel) and photos, in which she is shown next to former first lady Hillary Clinton, former attorney general Janet Reno and other high-profile political and civic leaders.
Her Port Ewen home, which she shares with two loquacious parrots, is filled with original art, much of it obtained at auctions run by Woodstock gallery owner James Cox. But perhaps her most treasured object is an original Colonel Sanders white linen jacket, carefully displayed behind glass with a brass plate identifying it and the date “circa 1950.” Pfeiffer said she auctioned off another of Sanders’ coats for $50,000 — but has no intention of selling this one. “Colonel Sanders set a good example,” she said, noting that a lot of the KFC franchisees grew up poor, like herself, and became successful through sheer hard work. “The Colonel used to say, ‘Man will rust out a lot quicker than wear out.’”