For the past 10 years, the folks at KFC have been tracking the ascent of chicken and waffles on restaurant menus. The Southern favorite was showing up everywhere from food trucks to breakfast chains and fine-dining menus. So why did it take this fried chicken specialist so long to launch its version?
“We wanted to deliver the best waffle to match our amazing extra-crispy chicken,” says Bob Das, head chef for KFC. He and his team worked on developing that waffle for 18 months, going through 15 iterations before achieving the perfect pairing.
It was worth the wait, judging by consumer response. KFC launched its Kentucky Fried Chicken & Waffles as a limited-time offer last November, and many locations sold out in two weeks. “We projected it to run for six weeks, but sales exceeded supply,” says Das. Fans didn’t have to wait long for the item’s return, however. KFC brought back the LTO in March, working with its waffle supplier to ramp up production to ensure a longer run through the end of April.
Perfecting the waffle
Das enlisted KFC food scientist Sarah Doyle to work with him and the bakery supplier to develop a waffle that fit texture, flavor and size specs. The result is a yeast-raised Belgian-style waffle produced in the U.S. and topped with pearl sugar imported from Belgium. The bits of sugar caramelize when the waffle is heated, creating a crunch, says Das. “We looked at waffle sticks, smaller toaster-style rounds and square waffles, but this won. It delivers on taste and texture and really differentiates the product,” he says. The only other new SKU needed for the LTO was pancake syrup.
Executing with ease
KFC didn’t have to bring any special equipment into its units to run this LTO. “To order, the waffles are dropped into the same fryers as our chicken and crisp up in 15 seconds,” says Das. Team members just needed brief training on the flash-fry method, and the LTO was ready to go, Das adds. Franchisees got on board fast because the prep is very simple and the item is easy to execute. Plus, “Demand and sales were so great, the franchisees turned a very nice profit,” he says.
A renewed focus on innovation
Over the next five years, KFC’s goal is to grow through meaningful innovation, President Kevin Hochman relayed in a recent episode of “A Deeper Dive,” Restaurant Business’ podcast. “We want things to be a ‘wow’ for our customers and franchise partners and deliver that ‘wow’ while growing profits,” Hochman said. He mentioned that some exciting, short-lived items designed to generate a lot of buzz may be in the works, but KFC will stick to its core mission of offering “real meals made the right way.”
KFC’s Kentucky Fried Chicken & Waffles Basket Meal, $5.49; sandwich, $5.99
• 101.5% Increase
The number of operators menuing chicken and waffles doubled over the past five years.
Source: Technomic Ignite Menu Data
• 24% Purchase Intent
Nearly a quarter of younger consumers (ages 18-24) say they would order chicken and waffles at a restaurant or other foodservice location at least occasionally.
Source: Technomic Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report
Though waffle breakfast sandwiches and chicken and waffles have been all the rave this past year, we’re now moving into the next wave of waffle innovation. The familiar breakfast bread is showing up as an innovative carrier for kids’ pizzas and savory non-morning sandwiches on some restaurant menus, and being cast as a coating or seasoning “flavor” on others. And beyond restaurants, some operators are transforming traditional waffle desserts with out-of-the-box elements that restaurants should look to for inspiration.
Why waffles and why now? Waffles are inexpensive and easy to work with. Consumer preference for specialty breads like waffles for items like sandwiches is on the upswing, according to Technomic’s Sandwich Consumer Trend Report. And approaching cold weather always brings with it an influx of comfort food favorites.
Here are some ways the iconic waffle is being spun in playful and off-the-wall styles.
Another twist on chicken and waffles, the limited-time sandwich has a tempura-battered fried chicken breast topped with Angry Orchard honey, jalapeno relish, citrus-marinated tomatoes, onions and shredded romaine between two Belgian waffles. The waffle follows Red Robin’s other innovative burger carrier releases of 2016, including lettuce wedges and crispy ramen.
The limited-time kids pizza features a waffle-cooked Criss-Croissant crust topped with marinara, Monterey Jack and cheddar. The hybrid dinner item is slated to appeal to the 55% of Gen Zers who enjoy eating breakfast foods like waffles at dinner, according to Technomic’s Breakfast Consumer Trend Report.
Making a splash at this year’s Minnesota State Fair was this Japanese taiyaki (fish-shaped) buttermilk-miso waffle cone filled with balsamic-roasted strawberry compote and topped with vanilla ice cream, graham cracker crumble and a strawberry. The miso and balsamic vinegar—both fermented ingredients—lend dual depths of pungent flavor to an otherwise traditional sweet dessert. It was available at the Midtown Global Market booth at the International Bazaar flea market near Minneapolis.