In an astonishing brand reversal, KFC is about to stake its future
on a red-hot concept that might have caused Colonel Sanders to see red: boneless
KFC, the chicken kingpin desperately in search of a new identity, will today announce plans to roll out Original Recipe Boneless -- which executives insist may be the brand's most important step forward since it was founded more than 60 years ago.
The risky move, three years in the making, is KFC's very public admission that its core product -- a big bucket filled with fried chicken legs, thighs and breasts on the bone -- may ultimately be banished to the dust-heap of fast-food lore.
Replacing it: boneless white and dark meat chicken chunks about twice the size of tenders -- but still deep-fried with the same super-secret herbs and spices. The target: an ultra-finicky generation of Millennials.
"This is the biggest new product introduction for KFC in modern times," says John Cywinski, 50, the former McDonald's brand strategist, who has been U.S. president of KFC for two years. USA TODAY was invited behind the scenes for one day at a nondescript, free-standing KFC store at a suburban strip mall, where the new chicken line was being tested for the day. "This will be one of the great American turnaround stories," Cywinski says.
The national roll-out of Original Recipe Boneless, to take place April 14, comes at a time the $200 billion fast-food industry is in turmoil, even as it emerges from the economic downturn. Fast-casual chains such as Panera and Chipotle have snatched serious market share, and much-improved supermarket take-out sections have lured away customers.
At the same time, the cultural cry for a healthier and more nutritious lifestyle has left heritage chains such as KFC hobbling-aaif not crippled.
KFC, which has 17,000 restaurants globally, including 4,400 in the U.S., also has a timing problem: Most folks prefer to go there for dinner, not lunch -- yet, the fast-food industry's mainstay is lunch.
Just as crucial, the societal demand for the kind of convenience that lets folks drive with one hand while gobbling lunch with the other, has left KFC scrambling to create one-fisted foods that don't leave bones and gristle falling in customer laps.
"If it can't be held in one hand -- or a cup holder -- don't bother making it," says Christopher Muller, dean at Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration. "That's the reality of the mobile world."
Bones fading away?
As early as next year, the majority of chicken sold at KFC will be boneless, projects Cywinski. Beyond the newest boneless offering, KFC's broader boneless offerings also include KFC Pot Pies, Famous Bowls, Chicken Littles, Dip'ems, Chicken Tenders and Bites. The new offering isn't formed chicken patties but made from whole muscle. Folks can order light or dark meat -- both are served without bones or skin.
During the roll-out, a two-piece meal with a side, biscuit and drink will sell for $4.99. To get on-the-bone chicken lovers accustomed to off-the-bone chicken, it also will sell a 10-piece bucket -- six pieces on the bone and four pieces off the bone -- for $14.99
To get the word out, KFC is about to unleash one of its biggest-ever marketing campaigns with this stop-you-in-your-tracks tag line: "I ate the bones."
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