(USA TODAY) -- In an astonishing brand reversal, KFC is about to stake its future on a red-hot concept that might have caused Colonel Sanders, himself, to see red: boneless chicken.
KFC, the chicken kingpin desperately in search of a new identity, on Friday, will announce plans to roll out Original Recipe Boneless - a chicken platform that executives insist may be the brand's most important step forward since it was founded more than 60 years ago.
The risky move, three years in the making, is KFC's very public admission that its core product -- a big bucket filled with fried chicken legs, thighs and breasts on the bone -- may ultimately be banished to the dust-heap of fast-food lore. Replacing it: boneless white and dark meat chicken chunks about twice the size of tenders -- but still deep-fried with the same super-secret herbs and spices. The target: an ultra-finicky generation of Millennials.
"This is the biggest new product introduction for KFC in modern times," says John Cywinski, 50, the former McDonald's brand strategist, who has been U.S. president of KFC for two years. USA TODAY was invited behind the scenes for one day at a nondescript, free-standing KFC store at a suburban strip mall, where the new chicken line was being tested for the day. "This will be one of the great American turnaround stories," says Cywinski.
The national roll-out of Original Recipe Boneless, set to take place April 14, comes at a time the $200 billion fast-food industry is in turmoil, even as it emerges from the economic downturn. Fast-casual chains such as Panera and Chipotle have snatched serious market share, and much-improved supermarket take-out sections have lured away customers. At the same time, the cultural cry for a healthier and more nutritious lifestyle has left heritage chains such as KFC hobbling - if not crippled.
KFC, which has 17,000 restaurants globally, including 4,400 in the U.S., also has a timing problem: Most folks prefer to go there for dinner, not lunch -- yet, the fast food industry's mainstay is lunch. Just as crucial, the societal demand for the kind of convenience that lets folks drive with one hand while gobbling lunch with the other, has left KFC scrambling to create one-fisted foods that don't leave bones and gristle falling in customer laps.
"If it can't be held in one hand -- or a cupholder -- don't bother making it," says Christopher Muller, dean at Boston University's School of Hospitality Administration. "That's the reality of the mobile world."
As early as next year, the majority of chicken sold at KFC will be boneless, projects Cywinski. Beyond the newest boneless offering, KFC's broader boneless offerings also include KFC Pot Pies, Famous Bowls, Chicken Littles, Dip'ems, Chicken Tenders and Bites.The new offering isn't formed chicken patties but made from whole muscle. Folks can order light or dark meat -- both are served without bones or skin.
During the roll-out, a two-piece meal with a side, biscuit and drink will sell for $4.99. To get on-the-bone chicken lovers accustomed to off-the-bone chicken, it also will sell a 10 piece bucket -- six pieces on the bone and four pieces off the bone -- for $14.99
To get the word out, KFC is about to unleash one of its biggest-ever marketing campaigns with this stop-you-in-your-tracks tag line: "I ate the bones." In TV spots created by KFC's ad agency, DraftFCB Chicago, customers who buy and eat the new boneless line will be depicted, in sudden panic, as if they'd just swallowed whole chicken bones.
Executives hope the phrase will instantly go viral and become a pop-cultural obsession, reminiscent of Wendy's old charmer of a slogan, "Where's the beef?"
The chain that's long been the butt of late-night comic jabs, is eagerly entering the 21st century. It's pondering a produce-rich sandwich line next year (maybe a wrap), and soups, salads, perhaps even smoothies, the year after that. No one's ready to call it a better-for-you fast-food joint, but KFC has no choice but to enter the brave new world of boneless. About six in 10 consumers prefer chicken without bones, reports Technomic, the research firm.
"Our Holy Grail is chicken on the bone," says marketing chief Jason Marker. "We are taking our hero product and drastically changing it."
Most Millennials don't know that chicken has bones in it, half-jests Marker.
That's partially thanks to McDonald's Chicken McNuggets and Chick-fil-A, the wildly successful, chicken off-the-bone chain with strong Southern roots that surpassed KFC in annual U.S. sales last year and emerged as the nation's biggest fast-food chicken chain.
Cywinski says he can apply to KFC the same sort of turnaround plan that successfully helped reinvent a struggling McDonald's nearly two decades ago.
"It won't happen overnight, but we will transform how people think about the brand," says Cywinski. While recently struggling in the crucial China market, KFC already appears to be in a mini-turnaroundm along with much of the fast food industry in the U.S., where KFC's same-store sales were up about 4% last year, says Cywinski.
But there are skeptics. Among them, Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a researcher that measures consumer loyalty. It found that even KFC's best customers only rate the brand as average, scoring a 76 out of 100 ranking. By comparison, Subway's best customers ranked the brand at 95 out of 100.
"KFC is a brand with a lot of baggage," says Passikoff. "You walk by the place, and it may smell good, but you just know it's not good for you."
But Ron Paul, president of Technomic, thinks KFC may finally be on the right course. "The idea of going to get the family a bucket of chicken from KFC is so 1950s," says Paul. "Sunday dinner with a bucket of KFC just doesn't work anymore."
While KFC isn't kicking the bucket, it will certainly de-emphasize it. Going forward, the brand will focus on individual meals made with boneless chicken.
At least one customer gives it a thumbs-up. Virginia Massie, a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom from Charlottesville, Va., with kids ages two, three and five, stopped in the Clifton store that was handing out free plates of the boneless chicken. Her kids scarfed it down, and she says that she likes not having to worry about bones -- even though the new boneless offerings cost about 25 cents more per piece.
"I don't mind paying more for some more convenience," she says. "I choose my battles."
That sentiment was echoed by 20-year-old Walter Perez, a Centreville, Va., resident and student. "It's less work for me and less messy," he says. "I'd buy it."
This isn't where KFC stops, but where it starts.
The brand plan will replace the current chicken fillet in its chicken sandwiches with boneless.By next year, says Cywinski, KFC will begin to roll out an expanded line of chicken sandwiches. A wrap version, with lettuce and tomato, is currently in testing, too. KFC will stop rolling out new chicken products on the bone.
Within five years, chicken on the bone products of all kinds may ultimately disappear from KFC, says Cywinski. "Our consumers will decide that."
What would Colonel Sanders say? That might depend on who you ask.
Many Millennials don't realize that KFC's founder, Colonel Harland David Sanders, was a real, honest-to-goodness person. "The guy with the goatee -- I thought he was made up," says Eduardo Baralt, a 19-year-old student from Centreville. "You gotta be kidding."
Nope. He was real, all right. And if The Colonel were here today, insists Cywinski, "this is exactly what he'd do."