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.