KFC, which had been sitting out the burger-based meatless movement so far, launches into the alternative protein fray this week with the first faux chicken product from Beyond Meat.
The product will test in one Atlanta restaurant, with nuggets and boneless wings, as a gauge for a broader potential rollout. In adding Beyond Fried Chicken to its menu, KFC becomes the first national fast food chain to serve plant-based chicken.
Famous for its breaded and fried poultry, the brand had been strangely quiet in the recent chicken sandwich war raging on social media between Popeye’s, Wendy’s and a few other competitors, and today’s announcement could explain its preoccupation.
The chain, in making its own cheeky pitch on Twitter, said of its chicken-free “chicken”: “It’s confusing, but it’s also delicious.”
Execs at KFC, the first of the Yum brands to experiment with fake meat, are following a now-established playbook by comparing the new product to the flagship meat, calling it “so delicious our customers will find it difficult to tell that it’s plant based,” says Kevin Hochman, president and chief concept officer, KFC U.S. “I think we’ve all heard, ‘It tastes like chicken.’ Well, our customers are going to be amazed and say, ‘it takes like Kentucky Fried Chicken!’”
For those in the Atlanta area, it’s available at the store on Cobb Parkway near Sun Trust Park, where samples (free with purchase) will be part of the promotion on Tuesday.
The restaurant “has a history of frequently testing unique and craveable menu items as a part of the brand’s food innovation strategy,” the company says in a statement.
Los Angeles-based Beyond Meat, which already has deals with Carl’s Jr., Dunkin and Subway for its beef and pork substitutes, has made clear that it’s quickly expanding to other faux proteins. The alliance with KFC “speaks to our collective ability to meet the consumer where they are,” says founder and CEO Ethan Brown. “My only regret is not being able to see the legendary Colonel himself enjoy this important moment.”
Beyond, with a post-IPO valuation of $12 billion, has been locked in a heated battle with Impossible Foods to lay claim to the country’s fast casual chains, stadiums, grocery stores, school campuses, meal kits and theme parks.
The pre-Labor Day KFC/Beyond premiere follows a summer that’s seen news breaking in the meatless arena nearly every week. Burger King, after a successful test in St. Louis and a handful of select cities, debuted the Impossible Whopper nationwide early this month and plans to stock its product in supermarkets for the first time this fall. The company already has alliances in place with White Castle, Red Robin, Cheesecake Factory, Little Caesars and other chains that cover north of 17,000 locations.
Beyond, which has made retail sales a priority and stocks its burgers in some 35,000 grocers, also has partnerships with Del Taco, Tim Hortons and TGI Fridays.
The plant-based brands are both fanning the flames of consumer interest and responding to an existing demand for options. Neither is focused, at least in its marketing, on environmental, animal welfare or health concerns. (Gen Z and millennial consumers often cite those as reasons for turning to alternative meat).
Instead, the competitors are leaning into taste, trying to assure “flexitarian” buyers they won’t be giving up the sensory experience of eating meat and aren’t depriving themselves by eating alt protein.
The KFC/Beyond deal is another groundbreaker and further evidence of the intersection of two mega trends (better product and amped consumer demand), says Zak Weston, foodservice expert at the nonprofit Good Food Institute.
“When companies like KFC embrace plant-based meat, it means plant-based has arrived on Main Street, USA,” Weston says. “The target audiences for QSRs like KFC span all walks of life—all ages, geographies, education levels and incomes. It’s becoming clear that plant-based meat is no longer a niche product, but has earned its place alongside beef, chicken, pork, and seafood as a major center-of-plate protein.”
Within five or 10 years, Weston predicts, there will be a “tidal wave of demand” for faux meat, proving the concept for the early adopters.
“Plant-based appeals to all generations, but it’s off the charts for millennials and Gen Z,” he says. “In today’s competitive foodservice industry, plant-based is a business imperative: your customers want it and your competitors are doing it.”