7 Things I Learned at KFC Headquarters
Why it’s so hard to recreate Original Recipe at home, and why they have a drive-thru indoors.
Due to its ubiquity, it might be easy enough to disassociate Kentucky Fried Chicken from its home state where the original Colonel Sanders opened his first chicken restaurants in the 1950s. But, as even Top Chef acknowledged, KFC is part of Kentucky history. And the heart of his now-global brand still beats within its Louisville headquarters where the people that maintain and innovate upon Sander’s original recipe. KFC invited me to chicken central to experience first-hand some public and privileged aspects of its operation. Here are seven things I learned at KFC headquarters:
1. There’s drive-thru lane indoors.
Of course, there’s a test kitchen (more on that later) but KFC headquarters also houses a fully-functioning test restaurant on premises. Located within the building (so, not accessible from the outside) you can pass through a rather nondescript doorway into the dining area of a recreated 3,666-square-foot KFC franchise. The purpose, of course, is to test KFC menu items and service procedures in situ, which, as with many KFC locations, includes a drive-thru. Yum! employees can even wheel by on the company’s adult-sized tricycles to pick up the latest test item on offer.
2. A talking Colonel Sanders robot will greet you.
Inside the lobby of the original headquarters building, known as The White House, you’ll find the Colonel Sanders Museum which was dedicated in 1978 and is open to the public on weekdays during business hours, The museum houses memorabilia and tells Sanders’ story and, since 2005, telling some of that story himself is a life-size Colonel Harlan Sanders animatronic that greets you as you walk in the door.
3. The test kitchen has every commercial fryer imaginable.
As a franchised business, KFC locations aren’t all owned by the brand and, as a nearly seven-decades-old company, not every location was built or is upgraded at the same time. Thus various regional owners have purchased or may even prefer fryers that don’t match up with their neighboring restaurants’ equipment. To that end, KFC executive chef Bob Das and his team have over a dozen commercial fryers in the test kitchen facility so that every KFC product and recipe can be tested and quality-checked in the various ways it might be prepared in the field.
4. Why you (probably) can’t recreate KFC at home and why you (sometimes) have to wait 20 minutes for chicken.
Not to brag, but I completed the KFC Chicken Mastery program. Under the tutelage of Chef Bob, I learned to inspect, dredge, arrange, and load up the chicken parts for frying. I even have the certificate to prove it:
As you may have gathered above, KFC has some serious chicken cooking equipment in its stores. Going back to the earliest days of the Colonel’s restaurant business, the differentiating factor for KFC Original Recipe (other than that secret recipe) is its process of pressure-frying chicken — that is, putting oil inside a pressure cooker. If it sounds dangerous, well, it is. Chef Bob does not recommend trying it with your Instant Pot. (Extra Crispy chicken, by way of comparison, is fried in an open, basket-style fryer.)
The whole process, from pulling the raw chicken from the refrigerator to pulling it out of the pressure fryer takes a little over 20 minutes, meaning most restaurants run on projections — frying chicken in advance and following the rushes and lulls of the day — so they can quickly fulfill your order the moment you actually order it. When they run out? Well, there’s no rushing perfection. You’re just gonna have to wait.
5. They know you’re tweeting about them.
Similar to parent company Yum! Brands’ “The Hive,” KFC has “The Coop” — an office dedicated to following mentions and conversations on social media. The technology serves practical purposes, like locating a customer service or product issue quickly, and more whimsical uses like joining in on trending conversations as so many brands are doing in this era of sentient (and often snarky) corporate accounts.
6. They’re very nostalgic.
If you’ve ever wanted to take a walk down KFC memory lane, you need look no further than the hallways and conference rooms at KFC headquarters. Images and articles throwback to various moments in the brand and its founder’s history, while vintage chicken buckets from decades past adorn the walls in some of the headquarter’s many meeting spaces. I saw a 1990s bucket design that I was surprised to find immediately evoked sense memory of Sunday KFC dinners during my childhood. It’s just a cardboard container and yet when you haven’t seen one like it in 20 years, it definitely brings up all the feelings.
7. Testing new products takes longer than you might think.
A final menu item may take months or longer to get right before it’s tested outside the building. To that end, I was granted access to an Innovation Day tasting, wherein Chef Bob and the product and marketing teams present dishes, operational updates, and promotional projects they’ve been working on. Now that It’s been seen in the wild, I think I can safely reveal that I was present for one of the final rounds of Cheetos Chicken Sandwich tests, with various execs and employees giving their opinions on the product. But there were also inklings of other possible items, some fleshed out and some just thought-starting bites. Everything from how a new menu item eats to how it can actually be prepared (down to the ladle size) is thought through. It certainly gave me more to chew on than just a piece of fried chicken.