El Pollo Loco has a bone to pick with Kentucky Fried Chicken and its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken.
“It’s pretty much a big guy coming after a small regional specialist and trying to bury them on their core product,” says Steve Carley, CEO of El Pollo Loco, which has been grilling chicken for more than 30 years. “We can't just take this sitting down. We have to respond.”
So the California chain launched its counterattack: a Taste the Fire taste test.
“[KFC's] product isn't really grilled,” Carley says. “Our contention is you can't have a grilled product without flames.”
According to Carley, KFC uses an oven to make its KGC, whereas El Pollo Loco has a flame grill in each restaurant.
“Without any fire in the kitchen, you can’t have any flavor in the chicken,” Carley says. “We want consumers and guests to really understand that key difference.”
While KFC gave out one free sample of KGC to each customer who visited stores Monday, El Pollo responded by giving out two free pieces of its chicken and two tortillas and fresh salsa at its 415 stores on Tuesday.
El Pollo Loco also launched a TV ad campaign on April 26 that asked customers to attend both events and then call 1-877-EPL-STEVE to vote for their favorite grilled chicken.
Carley says various national chains have tried and failed to launch non-fried chicken products that could rival the success of El Pollo Loco’s in the past. KFC’s most recent attempt was its Rotisserie Gold Chicken, which has since been removed from almost all of its stores.
However, Carley declined to share the results of the hotline vote.
“These results are going to be informal.” he says. “We have a high level of confidence we're going to be the overwhelming favorite.”
Laurie Schalow, a spokesperson for KFC, isn’t worried. She says the chain’s UNFry Day event Monday exceeded all expectations.
“We thought we’d give away 4 million pieces, and it was well over that,” she says. “There were lines well out the doors.”
She also contends that KGC is absolutely grilled, but instead of cooking the chicken on a fire, KFC does it on grill plates in a proprietary oven.
“This new slow-grilling process allows us to keep that great flavor and also very moist chicken,” she says.
And KFC is not officially responding to El Pollo Loco’s challenge.
“We appreciate the free publicity they’re giving us,” Schalow says. “We'll let consumers decide.”
KFC is advertising its new grilled chicken through a national campaign that encourages customers to “unthink KFC.”
“Our counter to that is you don’t have to unthink anything,” Carley says. “How about you just think El Pollo Loco?”
He says the results of the taste test are less important than El Pollo Loco’s two goals for the campaign: to recommit its team to serving the best grilled chicken possible, and to raise awareness among customers that flame-grilled flavor is available only at El Pollo Loco.
And if KFC doesn’t respond, El Pollo Loco has more tricks up its sleeve.
“We have a long-term response in place,” Carley says. “We’re just unveiling the first activities now.”