When KFC launched its Kentucky Grilled Chicken, the introduction was one of a number of major changes and shakeups to the fast-food restaurant chain’s menu. The addition of grilled chicken proved to be a significant addition to its menu, and a marketing opportunity to appeal to customers accustomed to the Colonel’s battered and fried menu offerings.

Not only was the restaurant’s Kentucky Grilled Chicken a major addition to its traditional Kentucky Fried Chicken selections, but it turned out to be a giant step forward in customer appeal throughout the chain.

In order to create its new “non-fried chicken” product, the restaurant chain trotted out brand new and different cooking equipment to accommodate the addition of “grilled” to “fried” in its thousands of franchised restaurants.

“The launch of Kentucky Grilled Chicken was the biggest new-product introduction in the brand’s history,” says Rick Maynard, spokesman for KFC.

“That product was introduced because our customers told us they love our food, but they wanted a lower-calorie option,” Maynard says. “Nutrition is becoming increasingly important to consumers and to our customers, so KFC is pleased to have an option such as Kentucky Grilled Chicken available for them.” Maynard says the product provides a great option for people counting calories. A two-piece Kentucky Grilled Chicken meal (drumstick and thigh) with mashed potatoes and green beans packs less than 400 calories, he says.

This wasn’t KFC’s first attempt at changing up its offerings as product developers had dabbled in adding a non-fried chicken option before. For more than 10 years, KFC test-marketed in chicken that wasn’t fried, without success. This came as a surprise to many because most consumers correlate chicken with healthful eating. Perhaps the earlier failure was related to equipment problems and long cooking times. But this time, Kentucky Fried Chicken equipped its domestic restaurants with high-volume cooking equipment to do the grilling. While KFC markets the chicken as “grilled,” the product is actually slow roasted in an automatic, high-temperature convection oven. The roasting equipment deploys a non-stick patented “grill plate” to create grill markings on the surface of the chicken. This cooking process results in juicier and tastier chicken, according to the company.

Kentucky Fried Chicken says its grilled chicken is made from the same marinated, bone-in chicken as the restaurant’s Extra Crispy and Original Recipe products, but six herbs and spices are added to the chicken before it is cooked in the convection oven, as compared to the signature 11 herbs and spices in the Original Recipe product. The ovens used are about twice as big as an institutional microwave oven, and can cook up to 80 pieces of chicken in about 22 minutes.

Because there is no breading used, the cooking is less cumbersome and the ovens in the restaurants clean themselves. KFC officials don’t reveal costs for the cooking equipment at its eateries. Company officials have said the grilled chicken makes the brand more contemporary, and shifts the identity of the iconic company. Marketing officials say Kentucky Grilled Chicken is meeting the nutritional needs of increasingly health-conscious consumers, as well as bringing back customers who decided to stop eating the restaurant’s fried chicken products.

Going back to 1930
The KFC fast-food chain is based in Louisville, Ky., and has been a brand and operating division of Yum! Brands since 1997, when that company was spun off from PepsiCo. It is part of a restaurant group including Long John Silver’s, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. The restaurant primarily sells chicken pieces, wraps, sandwiches and salads. While its primary focus has been fried chicken for a long time, it got into grilled and roasted chicken, as well as side dishes and desserts, as a means of broadening its identity. Outside of North America, KFC also sells beefbased products, such as hamburgers and kabobs, pork-based products like ribs and other regional food.

The company was founded as Kentucky Fried Chicken by Colonel Harland Sanders in 1952, but the idea for a fried chicken establishment actually goes back to 1930. In that year, in the middle of the Depression, Sanders opened his first restaurant in the small front room of a gas station in Corbin, Ky. Sanders served as the gas-station operator, chief cook and cashier. He named the dining area “Sanders Court and Café.” Seven years later, the restaurant added a motel and expanded the size of the restaurant.

In 1952, Sanders began to actively franchise his chicken business by traveling from town to town to cook batches of chicken for restaurant owners and employees. Today, more than 12 million customers eat at the chain’s 20,000 restaurants throughout the world, including 5,200 in the U.S. and 15,000 elsewhere. In a marketing move, the company began using the abbreviated form of its name in 1991. However, beginning in April 2007, KFC reverted to using its full name, Kentucky Fried Chicken, as part of a new corporate re-branding program.

Like most fast-food restaurants, KFC builds its menus around a combination of current promotions and core items remaining on the restaurant menu on a permanent basis. “Last year, we launched our Ultimate Value Menu, which provides a number of options at a reasonable price and that’s still a current promotion,” Maynard says.

The restaurant chain is now promoting its Double Down “bun-less sandwich,” which has created plenty of interest and resulted in sales of 10 million units in a little over a month.

KFC carries a lineup of base menu items that are always available to customers. “Original Recipe, Extra Crispy and Kentucky Grilled Chicken are core menu items, along with mashed potatoes, cole slaw, potato wedges, green beans, corn and other side items,” Maynard explains. “Also, boneless items like Extra Crispy Strips, Popcorn Chicken, wings and boneless wings are on the menu at nearly all KFC locations. Chicken sandwiches and Famous Bowls [chicken, gravy, corn and cheese] are also part of the core KFC menu.”

Working on menus
In devising its next big menu addition, KFC uses menu-planning teams to focus on what customers would like to eat and new product options.

“Our Consumer Insights and Food Innovation teams work together to make sure we are always coming up with and providing products our customers will enjoy,” Maynard says. “For instance, the Double Down came from consumer research showing many customers of other fast-food chains thought the chicken sandwiches they were ordering were too small. So small, in fact, many had to order two to satisfy their appetites. A bunless sandwich featuring two Original Recipe filets certainly takes care of any concerns about a chicken sandwich being too small,” Maynard says.

“Our Consumer Insights and Food Innovation teams are constantly talking with customers to determine what items they’d like to see on the KFC menu,” Maynard notes. “Those teams work with our suppliers to come up with innovative products filling a consumer need, like the Double Down or Kentucky Grilled Chicken,” he says.

As for what ultimately shows up on menu boards, Maynard says management teams and customer representatives discuss the options and then make final choices. “It starts with our consumers themselves. Then our Consumer Insights, Food Innovation and Marketing teams, working with our consumers, make decisions to bring new products to life.”

Because many consumers have short attention spans when it comes to food, products other than core items have to be changed periodically, the company says. Maynard says KFC runs national promotions about every six weeks, which frequently feature new menu items. While there are some regional differences in menu offerings, core menu consistency is always the goal.

“For the most part, the products on our menus have the same appeal everywhere,” Maynard says. “The core menu is fairly consistent in all of our restaurants. There are a few optional items popular in certain parts of the country our restaurants do make available to our customers. But by and large, our menus are the same everywhere.”

Offering value
Maynard says value is a key for KFC customers. “The introduction of the Ultimate Value Menu was an important rollout for our brand last year, in view of the economy,” he says. “We wanted to provide a number of options for customers at a walletfriendly price point. The Ultimate Value Menu is an assortment of 10 menu items, all priced individually at a value-focused 99 cents, $1.49 or $1.99. While some restaurant chains promote sandwiches for $5, KFC can offer a full meal at that price point. The Big Crunch Box is our current promotion, which includes three Extra Crispy Strips, an order of potato wedges, a biscuit and a drink – all for $5.”

Technomic Inc., a food industry research firm based in Chicago, cited five leading trends for menu planning in restaurants this year: comfort foods, expanding brand operations in Asia, new frontiers of flavor, local and seasonal ingredients and roundthe-clock breakfasts. Maynard says several of these trends are impacting the way KFC operates and responds to consumer demand.

Mintel, a London-based market research firm, ranks food quality above price this year among consumers’ priorities. That ranking should be reflected in KFC menus during the coming year and next, Maynard says. “KFC is well positioned in that way,” Maynard says. “Our chicken on the bone is delivered to our restaurants throughout the week, and this chicken is not frozen.”

In terms of becoming a “destination” restaurant, rather than “takeout,” though, KFC has a long way to go. About 78 percent of the chain’s business is dine-out. Most of KFC’s business has traditionally been based on the dinner daypart, at about 54 percent, with one-third (36 percent) served at lunch and 10 percent via snacks and other times. •

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, contributing editor and feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.