While the heritage of Louisiana food is rich with spices, color, and Creole influences, Alarcón’s challenges as a quick-serve culinary executive remain fundamental—how to fill missing dayparts and how her recipes can be recreated at the brand’s nearly 2,000 stores.
As a result, while Top Chef–style novices open stores offering Kobe beef and artisan cheese, she is focused on results. “You can’t start with a brainstorming process, you’ve got to start with a strategy first,” she says of her menu-innovation process. “The world’s full of a million ideas, but if you have an idea without a strategy, it’s not going to go very far.”
Alarcón is a culinary realist. She factors in proposed price points, food costs, prep times, and dayparts to create menu items that have staying power in the new brand. “You can’t just run off and start developing a bunch of products,” she says.
Although it’s clear nothing scares her in the kitchen, Alarcón did open up about two of the biggest issues facing the company—KFC’s new grilled chicken and the impending sodium crackdown facing quick serves.
Too smart to even say her competitor’s name during the interview, Alarcón admits that when she first heard of its foray into grilling, “I think everybody stopped for a moment and said, ‘OK, should we be considering this?’” Instead of playing catch-up, she has focused her efforts on overcoming the Popeyes Paradox—bringing slow-cooked food to consumers fast.
“The paradox, of course, is that behind the scenes in the back of the house, there’s a fair bit of labor and preparation to get it to that point [at the counter],” she says. “Obviously, being in a fried-food venue helps a lot because it’s already staged, it’s already prepared, and we’re just ready to fill the order when people come in.”
On the sodium front, she describes the task of lowering the amount of salt in the brand’s products as “a great challenge,” comparing it to solving a mystery. As the brand’s Sherlock Holmes, Alarcón is actively working with the company’s suppliers, putting pressure on them to find out how to deliver the flavor profile the company has so confidently championed but in a lower-sodium format.