For KFC, the future is between two buns or wrapped in a tortilla.
The fast-food chain, known mostly for its bone-in chicken, has removed five items from its menu, including popcorn chicken and chicken wings. The idea is to simplify ordering for customers and make life easier for employees. But it also gives the company room to add new products, something it announced last week with the return of Kentucky Fried Chicken Wraps. KFC is also testing new versions of its chicken sandwich.
“Consumers want more portable and boneless options,” Brittany Wilson, director of brand marketing for KFC U.S., said in an interview. “We want to make sure we’re showcasing flavor.”
Menu optimization appears to be making a comeback again. Brands are making changes to their menu boards, as A&W did last year, or they’re culling items from the menu altogether to simplify ordering and cut costs, something BJ’s Restaurants revealed last week.
Such shifts are a periodic necessity for brands to stay relevant. But they can also simplify operations and ease ordering, which on its own can generate sales without any new items being introduced. This is particularly important these days, with takeout and drive-thru orders more important, which puts pressure on operations.
But removing items can present risks by angering customers who’ve come to love such products. Then again, such instances can be used in marketing, as Taco Bell recently demonstrated with the return of its Mexican Pizza, which generated strong sales toward the end of last year. The Mexican Pizza was a weak-selling item that was axed from the menu in 2020.
In KFC’s case, the items being removed are somewhat surprising, given some of the marketing surrounding them in the past. Popcorn chicken, for instance, has been on the menu off and on since the early 1990s. Chicken wings, brought back in 2019, were a hot restaurant item in recent years. KFC’s introduction of Nashville Hot Chicken in 2016 helped spawn an entire segment of the industry.
Wilson didn’t dismiss the prospect that Nashville Hot could eventually return as a limited-time offer. “It’s no more on the permanent menu,” she said. “We’re not necessarily saying it’s gone forever.” She seemed less inclined to offer a similar hint on wings. “Wings didn’t have a really prominent place on the menu,” she said.
“It’s not where we’re taking the brand.”
At the same time, for a chain that specializes only in chicken, KFC had a bloated menu. There are bowls and pot pies in addition to the sandwiches and bone-in chicken, as well as the now-former items, wings and popcorn chicken.
By removing some items and simplifying its menu, KFC hoped to reduce the decision paralysis that can come when customers see a menu board loaded with items. “There were a lot of items on the menu,” Wilson said. “When you have so many options guests can feel paralyzed and it’s easy to get lost.”
The company tested its new menu at 200 locations last year for six months. The new menu, Wilson said, is easier to navigate with pictures. She also said it’s more operationally efficient because it’s simpler for workers to take orders from customers.
Wilson did not provide sales numbers but said the focus was on metrics surrounding customer and employee satisfaction. “The menu consolidation was truly about making the experience better for employees and customers,” she said. “Our focus was on those metrics.
“Consumers expect to be able to get through a quick-service restaurant easily.”
All that said, KFC does want to add new products it believes fit more with its future—boneless chicken. The company introduced its chicken sandwich in 2021, which generated strong sales, and it clearly wants to push the menu into that same direction.
The company did feature wraps on its menu but pulled them years ago, but some customers apparently pushed the chain to bring them back. KFC tested wraps in Atlanta last year and reintroduced them nationally earlier this month, with one Classic Chicken Wrap with an Extra Crispy chicken tender, pickles and mayo in a tortilla. There is also a Spicy Slaw wrap featuring a chicken tender, coleslaw, spicy sauce and pickles.
Wraps also give the company a low-priced menu item, with a 2-for-$5 price.
KFC also wants to extend its chicken sandwich line. Thus, it is testing barbecue and spicy slaw versions.
The company is also apparently not done. “There will be more to come in 2023 and 2024,” Wilson said. “Nothing that we can provide detail on right now.”
Members help make our journalism possible. Become a Restaurant Business member today and unlock exclusive benefits, including unlimited access to all of our content. Sign up here.