During the Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge, TN was home to some of America’s finest scientific minds. While these brilliant physicists were developing the world’s first nuclear weapons, innovators of a different sort were also getting their start in the Secret City. Believe it or not, Colonel Sanders of KFC, Dave Thomas of Wendy’s, and Tom Forkner of Waffle House all lived in Oak Ridge during World War II. Read on to learn what these fast food pioneers were up to in the midst of the Manhattan Project.
Colonel Sanders Ran Wartime Cafeterias
When America entered World War II in December 1941, Colonel Harland Sanders was not the iconic fried chicken magnate we know today. Although he had finalized his “Secret Recipe” for preparing chicken in a pressure fryer, he only owned one restaurant, which was attached to a motel in North Corbin, KY. Sanders also owned another motel in Asheville, NC, but wartime gas rationing and the subsequent drop in tourism forced the Colonel to sell the business.
As the war progressed, Colonel Sanders wanted to serve his country, but at age 52, he was too old to join the military. (Sanders was briefly in the army in 1906, but the title of “Kentucky Colonel” was a non-military honor bestowed by the governor.) In 1944, Colonel Sanders moved to Oak Ridge to manage public cafeterias for Manhattan Project workers and their families.
Sanders ran two of the three public cafeterias in the Secret City. These cafeterias were good experience for the fast food industry because, at their peak in 1945, they were serving 36,000 meals a day! Seven years after the end of the war, Colonel Sanders opened his first Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, and the rest is history.
Dave Thomas Learned the Restaurant Ropes
Dave Thomas moved to Oak Ridge when he was around 12 years old. After Dave’s mother passed away when he was five years old, his father Rex traveled around the country looking for work. During World War II, Rex found a new job building the K-25 Plant in Oak Ridge. Dave and his dad lived in a temporary village known as Happy Valley along with the families of other construction workers and laborers.
When he lived in Happy Valley, Dave Thomas took a bus each day to the nearby city of Knoxville to work at the Regas Brothers Restaurant. Young Dave learned an important lesson at this early job when a dispute with his boss led to his firing. After this incident, Dave vowed that we would never lose a job again.
Dave Thomas would go on to work with fellow Oak-Ridge alum, Harland Sanders when the Colonel started to franchise KFC. Thomas made many key contributions to the KFC brand, including convincing Colonel Sanders to reduce the number of menu items and encouraging Sanders to star in commercials for the chain. Of course, Dave Thomas is most famous for founding the Wendy’s burger chain in 1969, which now has more than 6,500 locations.
Tom Forkner Completed Top Secret Missions
While Colonel Sanders and Dave Thomas happened to be living around the Manhattan Project, Tom Forkner was an active participant in it. In his early 20s, Forkner was drafted into the military and was eventually sent to Oak Ridge after doing some undercover counter-intelligence work.
Forkner was given the recurring mission of transporting top secret materials from Oak Ridge to Los Alamos, NM (another key site for the Manhattan Project). The drive from Tennessee to New Mexico took 53 hours and avoided every city on the map. After the war, Forkner discovered that he had been carrying the enriched uranium for the “Little Boy” nuclear bomb.
Although the lengthy trips between Oak Ridge and Los Alamos were undoubtedly taxing, Forkner did have the good fortune of meeting his future wife, Marsha Bishop, during his time in the Secret City. A decade after the end of WWII, Tom Forkner and his business partner Joe Rodgers opened their first Waffle House restaurant. Today, there are 2,100 Waffle House locations in 25 states.
Where to Eat in Oak Ridge
While you will find KFC, Wendy’s, and Waffle House locations in Oak Ridge today, the Secret City is also home to many phenomenal sit-down restaurants. Check out our Where to Eat guide if you want to learn about all of the best places to eat in Oak Ridge!
This blog draws on Mike Stallo’s article “Giants of fast food have early connections to Oak Ridge” in The Oak Ridger.