Chicken is where it’s at: the unstoppable rise of KFC

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KFC has survived health scandals, veganism and a major delivery fail: can the fast food behemoth stay on top?

Before Donald Trump entered the White House, there was probably no other American businessman as instantly recognisable as Colonel Harland Sanders. True, Henry Ford and John D Rockefeller made far larger fortunes, but most people couldnt pick them out of a line up. Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, however, enjoys a strange celebrity, even 40 years after his death. His face, with the distinctive goatee and browline glasses, is plastered across 22,000 KFC outlets around the world including a branch called Sanders Cafe, a diner on Highway 25, just outside Corbin, Kentucky. It doesnt look much, and is situated next to a rundown tanning salon (new bulbs, new owner); but for some this is a place of pilgrimage. In 1932, it became the Colonels first restaurant and remains open to this day.

At lunchtime, customers are queueing to place their orders and eat in the original chestnut-panelled dining room. On the way to the restrooms, a few display cabinets feature one of Sanders trademark white suits and string ties, alongside old menus and memorabilia. At one table, Leslie Shriner, 52, a fifth-grade teacher from Florida, sits with Jeff Metcalf, 52, who grew up and lives in Corbin. Hes taken me here on a date. I think hes trying to impress me, she laughs. Shes only half joking. She and Jeff have been going out for six months; shes paying him a visit and he wants to show her the sights. She hasnt eaten a KFC meal since she was in high school. I usually try to eat clean meats and organic vegetables and healthy food. But he insisted they lunch at Kentuckys most famous restaurant.

Jeff explains: For someone who grew up in Corbin, its a source of pride that KFC is now all over the world. He travels quite a bit for work. Wherever I go, even in China, when they find out I am from Kentucky they always ask if I knew Colonel Sanders. That is the first association they make.

The unofficial curator of the Sanders Cafe is Steve Dearing, 69, who has spent most of his career at KFC, having joined in 1969 to work alongside the Colonel, helping design the restaurants. I have given tours to two groups from Japan, and I am not being facetious, it is almost a religious experience for them, he tells me in his light Kentucky drawl. They smell the walls. It is a truly deep emotional experience.


It seems improbable that people travel to pay homage to the Colonels first restaurant, or as they do leave buckets of KFC chicken on his grave in nearby Louisville. But Sanders has never been more famous, thanks to an equally surprising trend: the rise and rise of fried chicken. After three-quarters of a century of dominance, burgers remain the worlds No 1 fast food, but fried chicken is growing far more quickly. According to the market research company Mintel, the amount of fried chicken on US restaurant menus has grown 21% since 2015, compared with burgers, which have increased by just 9%. Nor is this just an American trend. All over the world, from the UK to China, fried chicken is a phenomenon, with sales galloping ahead, and the number of fried-chicken restaurants multiplying like mushrooms in autumn.

How did covering some chicken meat in seasoned flour and milk and then deep frying it become so popular? And can this boom survive not just huge competition in the dining-out market, but the increasing number of vegans and meat-eaters who want to adopt a more healthy diet? How long can a KFC Mighty Bucket For One meal, packing a gut-busting 1,275 calories, survive when politicians, particularly in the UK, talk about restricting fried-chicken shops in a bid to halt an obesity epidemic?

In the UK, its possible that you might have missed the fried-chicken craze. But something strange happened in February this year, when KFC was involved in what appeared to be one of the biggest corporate cock-ups of all time: it ran out of chicken. In a bid to cut costs, the company had changed distributors to DHL, the German logistics company, and moved from three distribution centres to one. A mixture of the software not being tested properly, a failure to hire and train enough staff, and a crash on the M6, meant the new warehouse was unable to supply restaurants with fresh chicken. At one point, 646 of the UKs 900 KFCs were forced to close for days on end.

But while this was terrible for the companys short-term sales, it revealed an unlikely wave of affection for the chain, and for fried chicken in general. Helped by a swift and irreverent mea culpa from the company (the adverts were headlined FCK were sorry), people flooded social media to joke that KFC running out of chicken was worse than Trump or an early warning of the apocalypse. In London, the Metropolitan police issued a statement imploring people not to contact the emergency services.

Fried chicken served with mashed potato, biscuits and gravy in Sanders Cafe. Photograph: Brian Finke

Its also in London, chiefly, that chicken has gained a hip, urban following, as evidenced by YouTubes Chicken Connoisseur, Elijah Quashie, whose shakily recorded reviews of takeaway outlets frequently gain more than 2m views (Quashie now has his own Channel 4 show, Peng Life). Meanwhile, a number of higher-end diners such as Chick n Sours and Shake Shack sell fried chicken to a mostly young crowd, alongside music and cocktails. In the last few years, chicken unless you are a vegan or a veggie has become the go-to food for millennials, says Paul Hemings, who with his wife opened Bird, a small chain of fried-chicken restaurants in London, four years ago. Chicken is having a moment, not just in the US and the UK but around the world. Chicken is where its at.

And yet KFC has ridden this wave, opening new stores at the rate of one every seven hours. In the last two years, the chain has launched in Macedonia, Uzbekistan, Albania, Guyana, taking the number of KFC countries up to 131 more than McDonalds.


To understand the rise of fried chicken, you must first understand the rise of chicken itself, an ascent that has been dramatic since 1948. This was when the final of the Chicken of Tomorrow contest was organised by the US Department of Agriculture, in an attempt to breed a bird that could on an ounce-per-dollar basis compete with pork and beef.

Previously, chickens had been farmed primarily to lay eggs. Most people thought chicken meat neither tasty nor good value. The Chicken of Tomorrow contest encouraged farmers to cross breeds in an attempt to create, in the breathless words of one newspaper report at the time, breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks. Breeds that had a propensity to overeat and thus grow quickly were favoured. The contest had a profound effect on the poultry industry creating a bigger, cheaper, more profitable bird with larger breasts, and one that could be slaughtered after six weeks rather than 12. Nearly all birds we eat today, whether in America or Europe, are descendants of the winning Cornish-New Hampshire crossbreed.

People fell in love with the taste of chicken. As the price of chicken tumbled compared with beef and pork, it became ever more popular, helped by the fact it is acceptable to many major religions.

Leslie Shriner and Jeff Metcalf at Sanders Cafe. Photograph: Brian Finke

Britain, for instance, slaughtered a mere 1 million chickens in 1950. By 1965, this number had leapt to 150 million birds. The official figures for last year show we slaughtered more than 1 billion. In 2016, global production of poultry meat hit 119m tonnes, overtaking pork for the first time, according to the UNs Food and Agriculture Organisation. Chicken is now the worlds No 1 meat.

Harland Sanders cafe played a crucial role in all this. It sold various items, including ham, biscuits (a Kentucky speciality, similar to a savoury scone) and fried chicken. He, of course, did not invent the dish; it had been a staple of southern cooking, especially for African Americans, for decades.

But his was different, thanks to a secret blend of 11 herbs and spices and his method of cooking. The Colonel perfected his recipe with the pressure cooker, explains his former colleague Dearing, pointing to a bulky old appliance at the Sanders Cafe. The pressure fryer not only makes it cook quicker, it pushes the moisture and flavour into the meat.

Fried chicken can only become fast food once it is fast. Where it once took 30 minutes to cook, Sanders pressure cooker reduced that time to nine minutes. But, in 1954, they built Interstate 75, which bypassed Corbin. Business dried up overnight.

So at the age of 64, Sanders took to the road, with a pressure cooker and a bag of seasoning. He visited restaurants and demonstrated his recipe, asking them to put it on their menus, in return for four cents for every chicken they sold cooked his way. It was the start of a nationwide franchise that allowed him to sell up in 1964 for $2m (1.5m), staying on as a $75,000-a-year ambassador until he died in 1980. It became a suitably rousing American Dream story for the marketing men to exploit.

Now Sanders is being resurrected by a new generation of executives. Fried chicken may be thriving nearly everywhere on the planet, but in America, its birthplace, KFC has had a serious wobble as slicker rivals do a better job at winning over fickle millennials.

KFCs global headquarters is in Dallas, Texas, a modern glass-and-brick building on a business park with its own staff basketball court and test kitchens. Here I meet Roger Eaton, the chief executive. A 6ft 3in South African, dressed in jeans, he has a swaggering bonhomieand is keen on high-fiving and talking about football.

One of his tactics in reviving KFCs flagging fortunes in the US has been advertising hiring a number of high-profile comedians and actors, including Rob Lowe, George Hamilton and Billy Zane, to dress up as Harland Sanders. The adverts in the US are very distinct, Eaton says. The minute you see the Colonel on the television you say he snaps his fingers Thats a KFC advert. Thats the challenge: getting that distinctiveness when young people have an attention span of a goldfish, eight or nine seconds.

His innovation team has used social media astutely, launching a number of hyperbolic products that hit the menu for just a few weeks in order to generate a frenzy of Instagram posts and retweets. Theres been the chizza, developed by KFC in the Philippines a pineapple and ham pizza where instead of a dough base, there is a piece of deep-fried chicken. In France, KFC is launching a croque monsieur, with slabs of deep-fried chicken replacing the slices of white toast.

For now, this tactic is working: sales in the US have recovered and the UK, after the DHL fiasco, is back on track. But long-term, KFC needs to address a slow but inescapable shift in eating habits. Young people are becoming more interested in their food and the impact their consumption is having on the planet. In the UK, the number of vegans has tripled in the last 10 years, to 540,000 or many more. Experts believe this figure (from the Vegan Society) underestimates the number of people who may not be fully vegan, but are flexitarians, actively seeking to cut back on meat for health, environmental or ethical reasons. The ethics of eating barn-reared chickens, who rarely if ever see daylight and are slaughtered after 32 to 45 days, is very much up for debate.

Kate Ovens at the first KFC in Kentucky. Photograph: Brian Finke

KFC was described by the author Jonathan Safran Foer in his book Eating Animals as arguably the company that has increased the sum total of suffering in the world more than any other in history. He pointed out that, in 2004, workers at one of the companys main suppliers were filmed jumping up and down on live chickens and kicking them like footballs. KFC vowed at the time to deal only with suppliers that promised a commitment to animal welfare.

Eaton, who has been chief executive since 2015, insists KFC has had a good record in recent years. I cannot tell you how seriously we take animal welfare. I take it personally. I visited numerous chicken plants in my life and I am very comfortable about what we do. Its true that the company has been free of the animal-cruelty scandals that dogged it a decade ago. And in the UK, all KFC chicken is Red Tractor, an assurance scheme that guarantees the chickens are British-farmed and stocked slightly less densely than EU minimum standards. Under EU legislation, broiler chickens (those grown for meat) can be kept in sheds with up to about 21 adult birds per square metre; Red Tractors scheme allows up to about 19 birds though a requirement for its sheds to have windows is only being introduced from 2020. Last month, Red Tractor came under fire after it emerged that just one in 1,000 farm inspections were made unannounced (the percentage should be much higher).

But even if its customers are comfortable with KFCs animal welfare standards, its health credentials are hardly golden. Chicken is lower in fat and higher in protein than beef, but the moment you deep fry it, you are transforming it into something pretty calorific. A three-piece original recipe meal, not the largest thing on the menu, contains 1,035 calories, way more than a Big Mac meal at McDonalds (845 calories).

Eaton is aware how KFC, along with other fried-chicken outlets, has become the whipping boy in the public obesity debate certainly in the UK. When he was campaigning for the mayoralty, Sadiq Khan said that, London has too many chicken shops, lumping them together with pawnbrokers as a blight on the capitals high streets.

Since Khan came into office, he has put his London Plan out to consultation, which includes a proposal to ban hot food takeaways from opening within 400 metres of a school. One council has already acted, with Redbridge in east London implementing the ban earlier this year.

Regulators also appear more willing to act against fast food companies that target children. Earlier this month, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled KFC had broken guidelines by placing a billboard for a KFC Mars Krushems drink too close to a primary school. KFC said it was an error and took the advert down the moment it was alerted.

Eaton takes the line, one that fast-food executives have adopted for some time, that they are not really the problem. We could go into a KFC store and we could comfortably have a meal for anywhere between 500 and 800 calories. If you apply common sense, KFC fits incredibly comfortably into a balanced diet. Hey, Im living it. Thats all right for him to say. Hes a tall man, and at 90kg (14st 3lb) would be classed as healthy on the Body Mass Index scale. But when pushed, he acknowledges that even if most customers eat a KFC only once a month the company needs to do a better job of engaging in the obesity debate.

After talking to Eaton, I visit a branch of KFCs main rival in the US, Chick-fil-A. It has half the number of US restaurants as KFC (about 2,200 US branches) but is growing far faster. In a downtown Dallas branch I meet Nikki Webb, 50, an office clerk, who says, I would chose Chick-fil-A over Kentucky Fried. I prefer the taste its more natural. Chick-fil-A, as well as frying, grills a lot of its chicken. Years ago, yeah, I had fried chicken the whole time. But I do worry about how unhealthy it is, Webb says. The health movement in the US is so big now. I think fast food is one of the worst things you can do to harm your body. So, I try to stay away from it. She has ordered a yoghurt.

Photograph: Brian Finke

Sarah Jacob, 39, who works in finance, echoes her views. Where will fried chicken be in 10 years time? I think all these chains will be making adjustments, just as Chick-fil-A has. It has a kale salad on its menu, which is so good. There is no kale on a KFC menu. In fact, in the US restaurants, it is hard to find any greenery apart from some cabbage in the coleslaw.

Still, each country is allowed to develop its own dishes, so long as they dont mess with the 11 herbs and spices. Jack Hinchliffe, 35, is the head of innovation for KFC in the UK, in charge of coming up with new menu items, from its British HQ in Woking, Surrey. Hes been with KFC for three years and has been closely watching the rise of healthy eating and veganism. The data suggests this is more than a passing fad. Young customers are more engaged than theyve ever been about the provenance of their food, the story of their food. Meat-free, flexitarian lifestyles will continue to grow. Thats something were aware of and seek to respond to.

To this end, Hinchliffe developed the rice box for KFC in the UK: a carton of Tex-Mex steamed rice, a green salad and tomatoes, with slices of fried chicken on top. We developed the rice box to have a great, permissible way to enjoy KFC. Its 500 calories. Its a much lighter, healthier product. It is hitting a critical calorie count. Using grilled chicken would seem the obvious way to cut calories, as Chick-fil-A has done, but Hinchliffe does not think this is the answer. Our fans and guests dont want a grilled product or an oven-baked product. We have tried those. They come to KFC for our fried chicken. And fried chicken is what KFC will give them, even if it is alongside a salad rather than a portion of fries.

It will become an increasingly difficult circle to square. KFC needs to offer healthier dishes, to keep abreast of social change, and keep politicians off its back. But any success and social media hype it enjoys tends to stem from the fact fried chicken remains, at its heart, comfort food: greasy, crispy, salty and, for many customers, very tasty.

Back in Corbin, I ask Leslie Shriner how her meal was her first KFC since she was a teenager. You know what? It tastes good. Just how I remember. Its juicy, tender and crunchy. Even though she would usually order an organic salad for lunch? Hey, theres a nostalgia thing going on, for sure. Theres comfort. Its like eating Moms cake.

Her new partner, Jeff, pipes up: Will you come and eat fried chicken again with me?

She smiles. The date has been a success. The fried-chicken boom isnt over yet.

The secret 11 herbs and spices

Making the secret recipe at KFC HQ Dallas. Photograph: Brian Finke

Its the most famous recipe in the world, says KFC chief executive Roger Eaton. Developed by Harland Sanders in the 1930s and 40s, the spice blend is still used, and a big part of the companys marketing. KFC uses two separate flavour suppliers, with one mixing up half the blend before shipping it to the second, to reduce the risk of the exact 11 being leaked. It arrives in all restaurants pre-mixed, and is then added to flour, dried egg and milk powder to coat chicken before cooking.

Eaton, mostly very chatty, says: I wont answer any questions about the secret recipe. Seriously. He then pauses. Except to say its very secret and there are very few people in the world who know it, and there are very few people who know who does know it.

Does he know it? I wont answer that.

In August 2016, the Chicago Tribune reported that a nephew of Colonel Sanders had claimed to have found a copy of the recipe in a scrapbook. Many people have made these claims over the years and no one has been accurate, KFC said about the article. This one isnt either. However, the recipe was:

tbsp salt
tbsp thyme
tbsp basil
tbsp oregano
1 tbsp celery salt
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp dried mustard
4 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp garlic salt
1 tbsp ground ginger
3 tbsp white pepper

If you really want to know the identity of the spices, you can excavate the cornerstone of the Colonel Sanders Technical Centre in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1986, 11 vials containing the secret ingredients were embedded into a concrete block.

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