Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dinner With The Colonel: A Lesson In Inept Management & Marketing

I had the occasion to visit a KFC outlet last night. My interest was to try the chain's new

grilled chicken menu item. It had been praised by a friend earlier this summer. Since the only local store was only slightly out of my way home from my fitness club, I decided to try it last night.

I've been to that store in the past, and always find the gaudy, crowded menu difficult to understand. I don't think it's just me. When I visit a Burger King or McDonalds, the choices are pretty obvious and clear.

Not so at KFC.

The menu board is busy and confusing. There must be upwards of 30 ways of getting chicken, and none are really very clear. They have fried, extra crispy, now grilled, with or without sides, in varying quantities. But pricing isn't clear, nor is exactly what combinations are on offer.

By the way, is it Colonel Sander's Fried Chicken? Kentucky Fried Chicken? KFC? Or Colonel Sander's Kentucky Grilled Chicken?

References to the Colonel still appear, but the chain went from its longer name to KFC years ago. Of course, fried food went out of style for a time, thus the name change. But using the Colonel evokes the chain's roots and one signature product- fried chicken.


The service was just horrendous. I stood looking at the menu for over a minute while the counter attendant busily cleaned in front of me on the customer side of the counter. She didn't even acknowledge my presence until she returned to her side to wait for my order.

Being, as I noted above, confused by the poorly-designed menu, I just asked what quantities of grilled chicken were available, and for what prices. After some thrust and parries to get the information I desired, I settled on buying just a half of a grilled chicken and a drink.

It was, thus, somewhat insulting to have a plastic plate with two legs and two thighs shoved my way by the indolent counter attendant.

I asked if their usual half chicken came all dark, and she replied it did not. She then made a point of slowly searching high and low for a breast and wing.

When I went to fill my standard-chain-store-issue drink cup, there was no ice. I remarked on this, and the manager- no less- had to manually pour a fresh bucket of ice into the dispenser.

Then I had to ask for cutlery, as none is in view. Again, a sigh and a slow, laborious movement by the attendant brought the requested dining tools.

When I finally got to taste the new grilled chicken, it was superb. A little pricey, in my opinion, at $10 for rather smallish pieces of grilled chicken. But the flavor was really very good.

My mixed experience brought forth this post.

The KFC branding is schizophrenic. The "Colonel" is still mentioned, but he's really a relic of a bygone era.

It's KFC, but the hot new non-fried menu offering is great. Trying to order it is a challenge.

Then I looked at the nearby five-year price chart of YUM Brands and the S&P500 Index. To my great surprise, YUM has handsomely outperformed the index for nearly three years. It did a bit better consistently from 2005, and really held its own beginning with the recession late in 2007, while the S&P cratered.

Of course, YUM is the combination of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Long John Silver's, and A&W All-American Food Restaurants brands, so you can't deduce that KFC is actually driving YUM's good performance. Personally, I have had more and better experiences at the firm's A&W and Pizza Hut units.

I included McDonalds and BurgerKing in that chart above for comparison. As I expected, YUM looks a lot like BKC, while both trail McDonalds. It once again goes to show what product and brand leadership do for you in tough times. McDonalds just eased ahead of both of its competitors, although, as I may write in an upcoming post, they have their own occasional store issues, too.

I guess my overall takeaway- no pun intended- from my KFC visit is how my experience of a really good, fresh, well-prepared fast food item can be ruined by inept, slow and uninspired service.

Did I mention, by the way, that as I sat eating, at 8:45PM, over an hour before the store's 10PM close, the same counter attendant found it important to sweep the floor and rearrange chairs and tables near me in an otherwise nearly-empty restaurant. Yeah, that'll have me running back there, too.

So much of running a really consistently superior business is execution. In this case, I've always found KFC's menu items to deliver well on their promises. The fried chicken is good, as is the new grilled version.

But the service and setting always bring me down. There's a lesson there.

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