In a hip hotel in Chicago’s West Loop, nestled among more Michelin-starred restaurants than I can count, KFC has presented me with a carefully plated presentation of chubby chicken chunks on a rectangular white plate. The first is your standard, plain tan. The second, a honey BBQ. The third, drenched in buffalo sauce. And the final features an oily coating of Nashville hot spice.
Sitting amid lavish bouquets of bell peppers, turnips, Brussels sprouts, and other vegetables, I take my first bite of vegan* KFC.
KFC’s new Beyond Fried Chicken will be available in nearly 100 stores in Charlotte, North Carolina; Nashville; and surrounding areas from February 3 to February 23. Produced by Beyond Meat exclusively for KFC, if it sells and customers like it, a nationwide release will follow at an undisclosed date.
Back in Chicago in my fancy tasting room, a 3-foot-tall cutout of the Colonel himself looks on from a green wall as I tried the undressed plant nugget for the first time. My teeth pierce the crunchy fried coating and shred through the meat.
It tastes like a doggone piece of chicken—and not just any piece of chicken, but a KFC piece of chicken with hints of those 11 herbs and spices. I fork and knife my way through the honey BBQ (perfectly too sweet, and the coating still crunchy), the buffalo (a touch vinegary for my taste but offering the uncanny aftertaste of chicken), and the Nashville (the deep pepper flavor has respectable heat that hits me a delightful 10 seconds later).
KFC and Beyond Meat executives are waiting to be interviewed, and I look at the four remaining pieces there on the plate, realizing this is the best faux chicken I’ve eaten in the last five years of eating mostly vegan. Would it be uncouth to keep going, to meet Ethan Brown, CEO of Beyond Meat, with BBQ sauce on my hoodie? (I opt to stop. Though I regret later that I didn’t finish.)
KFC adopting Beyond Meat is not necessarily the biggest coup for fake meats in fast food: Last year, Beyond Meat has already snuck its breakfast sausage into sandwiches and bowls at Dunkin’ (the fourth most popular chain in the U.S.) while fierce competitor Impossible landed the Whopper at Burger King (the sixth). But while KFC is smaller than either of these chains (at 12th place), it certainly feels like a sign of the times that a company that’s literally named “Kentucky Fried Chicken” will be selling chicken with no literal chicken in it. No wonder the alternative meat industry is projected to grow to $140 billion in a decade.
As Andrea Zahumensky, CMO of KFC U.S. tells me, KFC has been eyeing meat replacements for a while, but no product in the category seemed mature enough to work. That was until last year when talks with Beyond Meat began in earnest, and the two companies struck up a deal to co-develop a product. The process has taken about six months.
The target customer isn’t just vegans or vegetarians, but flexitarians—people who might eat meat but would like to cut back on how much they consume. As a recent Kroger study found, 93% of people who bought Beyond Burger had other animal proteins in their cart. And for KFC, which has has been posting solid revenue and profits, though failing to have its Popeyes Chicken Sandwich moment, the product offers the opportunity to bring in a new, younger audience.
The chicken is good enough that I suspect it will. But getting to this point was difficult. Beyond Meat’s chicken product is completely custom for KFC—which is unique; the Impossible Whopper at Burger King and sliders at White Castle are the standard blend. The company went through countless iterations on the protein, ultimately opting, not for a ground, spongey protein, but something more akin to whole breast muscle tissue. As Brown demonstrates, picking apart a nugget with his fingers, Beyond Fried Chicken flakes and shreds. (It’s anything but the grill-marked homogenous slabs of Beyond Chicken I bought from the freezer aisle years ago.) The meat is marinated to improve texture and impart extra KFC flavor. Meanwhile, KFC worked on the breading, opting for a coat that was similar to the company’s popcorn chicken. It all comes together in a factory, before the product is shipped to KFC locations and deep fried to food safe temperatures, just like meat would be. This final fry is also key to denaturing the proteins, and giving the chicken the right mouthfeel, I’m told.
I was surprised that KFC is opting to present its plant-based chicken so naked, as a product that could be eaten plain, dipped, or tossed in sauce. Why not release a Beyond Meat Fried Chicken Sandwich that could hide any off flavors with a bun, veggies, and extra condiments? The vegan chick’n sandwiches I’ve eaten at restaurants for years do just this, and often to a convincing effect.
“Our customers expect KFC to have a certain flavor, [and] to be flavorful. Doing it in a form like this allows that flavor to shine and the texture to shine,” says Zahumensky—who implies that a bun or extra accoutrements would have just gotten in the way of this result.
One other curious part of the design is the shape. McDonald’s famously uses “bell, ball, bone and boot” molds in their nugget designs, to create a sensation somewhere between chicken as factory-processed food and unique, organic snowflakes. For KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken, each chunk of chicken has a geometry that’s tougher to describe. I jot down the term “warbly square” in my notes. Some pieces look like wing flats. Others look like a sort of fried tamagotchi keychain.
“It’s some kind of nugget-like boneless wing-like, more premium than a nugget [thing],” says Zahumensky. Indeed, originally this shape was even called a “boneless wing” during an early market test in Atlanta. Fans lined up around the block, but they got feedback: Plants don’t have bones so they can’t be boneless. “That’s why we test,” Zahumensky laughs at the company’s error. “We’re trying to learn.”
In the future, Beyond Meat could shape this chicken however KFC wants. For now, it’s clear the company is going for something more premium than a chicken nugget—but they can’t call it a wing. Chicken cube? Chicken tesseract? Don’t be surprised to see more testing from KFC in the future, regarding both the shape of its plant chicken and its branding.
Whatever shape and name Beyond Fried Chicken takes when it eventually hits stores nationwide, the product they have ready to trial today is superb. As I leave the meeting, the flavors of KFC are still left on my tongue. And I’m left with a new revelation about the future of fake meats.
Some people don’t like Beyond Meat for its uncanny resemblance to real meat. Others frown upon eating plant meats when the real stuff is so delicious and plentiful. (Both of these perspectives are fair; what you put into your mouth is entirely your business.) But Beyond Fried Chicken demonstrates that KFC is more food as brand than it is food as chicken. KFC as we know it in our mind’s eye is an experience that transcends the quibbles, “Is this real meat?” to ask, “Is this authentic KFC?” And Beyond Fried Chicken certainly is as guilty, salty, chewy, herbaceous, and umami-loaded of an experience as the KFC you know.
Though now I’d like some the Extra Tasty Crispy and Original Recipe versions, thanks!
* Beyond Fried Chicken is fried in the same fryers as KFC’s meat-based fried chicken. So much like Burger King’s Impossible Whopper, some people may take issue with calling this “vegan.”