UPDATE: Aug. 27, 2019: KFC's Beyond Fried Chicken sold out in less than five hours Monday at a single Atlanta store, according to an email KFC shared with Restaurant Dive. The company will evaluate these results and determine if it will expand the test or launch a nationwide rollout.
- KFC will begin testing plant-based fried chicken from Beyond Meat at an Atlanta restaurant on Tuesday, according to a company release. It is the first U.S. QSR to offer a vegan chicken option.
- The chicken chain will sell nuggets and boneless wings made with Beyond Meat's chicken formula. Diner feedback from the Atlanta location will be evaluated to determine whether the restaurant will expand the test or launch a nationwide rollout.
- The move follows Beyond Meat's decision to pull Beyond Chicken from grocery stores earlier this year to alter its formula, after determining it didn't meet its quality standards.
KFC's Beyond Fried Chicken launch came as a bit of a surprise, as KFC U.S. President Kevin Hochman told CNBC just a few months ago that the restaurant's U.S. branch had no plans to test plant-based products. But given the landslide success vegan burgers have experienced in the past year, it makes sense that the brand would change its tune.
The plant-based chicken's performance in Atlanta could also signal a domestic growth opportunity for the chain, which has struggled to compete with its U.S. rivals. Twenty-seven percent of its sales are driven by its China business, while the U.S. accounts for just 17%. A vegan option could give it an edge over Chick-fil-A and Popeyes, which have only around 2,300 and 3,100 locations respectively compared to KFC's 4,000-plus.
Diner interest in plant-based eating is at an all-time high, and the right marketing push and a competitive product could give KFC a strong first mover advantage in this space. U.S. retail sales have jumped 11% in the past year, pushing the segment's market worth to $4.5 billion, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. Sales of plant-based foods have also grown 31% since 2017.
When KFC U.K. debuted a vegan chicken burger product in June, it sold out in only four days, and product sales were initially 500% higher than a standard burger at the restaurant. These results echo the success of White Castle's Impossible Slider test, which saw a 250% jump in market share at participating locations. When Burger King tested its Impossible Whopper in St. Louis this spring, test locations saw 18.5% higher foot traffic than the national monthly average. It's possible that this test was intentionally small — including only one location — to guarantee that the product would sell out and drive hype on social media. The chain posted a gif announcing its new product was sold out Tuesday afternoon.
If the strong consumer response lasts beyond this initial test, KFC U.S. could experience similar gains, especially since the product doesn't require any back-of-house changes, KFC U.S. President Kevin Hochman told Forbes. He also said the company expects to expand the test beyond the single store, and that he believes the product will attract new customers and bring existing customers in more frequently.
It seems likely that other chicken QSRs will roll out plant-based experiments of their own. The category is already embroiled in a Twitter-viral chicken sandwich war following the launch of Popeye's chicken sandwich earlier this month, and a report last week that McDonald's will be rolling out a competing sandwich in September. Investing in vegan options could be the next wave of chicken competition, and perhaps the next iteration of the chicken sandwich battle, specifically. Chick-fil-A has been exploring plant-based meat options and McDonald's is testing vegan chicken nuggets and chicken sandwiches in Norway.