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QSR Feature
Fire Up the Grill
The success of KFC’s Kentucky Grilled Chicken signals that grilled menu items could be taking over for fried food.
The success of KFC's Kentucky Grilled Chicken signals that grilled menu items could be taking over for fried food.

For 15 years, developers at KFC tinkered with the business formula that was established by founder Colonel Sanders, a formula that drove the chain to the top of the chicken quick-service segment: selling fried chicken. Times had changed, and the brand was attempting to respond to consumer demand for a nonfried menu option.

“Our customers have been telling us for a long, long time now that even though they love the taste of the Original Recipe, their lifestyle and changes … [meant that] we needed to be able to come up with some nonfried options that fit into that,” says Doug Hasselo, chief food innovation officer for KFC.

After 15 years of misfiring with options like the Tender Roast and Colonel’s Rotisserie Gold, the brand finally found its nonfried salvation in Kentucky Grilled Chicken, which debuted last April. Jonathan Blum, a spokesman for KFC’s parent company Yum! Brands, said in January that the new grilled option was projected to earn $1 billion in sales in its first year on the market.

The success of Kentucky Grilled Chicken is one sign that grilled menu items in the quick-service industry—primarily grilled proteins like chicken, beef, and fish—are starting to cannibalize fried profits that have traditionally driven fast food companies.

Mixing It Up

According to Mintel Menu Insights, the number of menu items with grilled ingredients at 101 of the top quick-service brands increased 8 percent in Q4 of 2009 beyond the same quarter of 2007. The number of grilled items at those brands was 703 at the end of 2009.

While the growth was not astounding, KFC’s success with its Grilled Chicken showed that changing the cooking method could reap big rewards. It also proved that a cooking method like grilling could open other doors.

“Having this platform, our grilling platform, gives us tremendous new food innovation potential,” Hasselo says. “Think about the multiple variations of flavors you can do on things like that. It does give us a whole new platform for growth, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing, and we’re very excited about it.”

KFC started to explore that variety in January when it released its Fiery Grilled Wings, a hot-wing version of its Grilled Chicken. Hasselo says consumers can expect “tremendous new flavor variety” from the brand in the near future, as well.

Harry Balzer, vice president and senior analyst with market research firm NPD Group, says the variety grilled proteins create is one of the biggest reasons why consumers respond positively to them.

“If you have something that’s very important to you, you know what you look for most often? A new way to have that same thing,” he says.

Balzer says that the grilling trend especially has room for growth in chicken because it is the second-most consumed dinner option in America, behind sandwiches. According to NPD estimates, about 23 percent of dinners consumed outside of home are chicken entrées. More than half of that—about 13 percent—is fried chicken.

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