A Vegan Fried Miracle

Though small, the vegan movement may be one of the biggest dietary shifts of the new century—one that’s changing the face of the fast food industry. So much so that Kentucky Fried Chicken has become the latest restaurant shedding its all-meat image in hopes of attracting herbivores

This week, KFC debuted a plant-based alternative to its signature chicken dish in a limited, one-restaurant test at an Atlanta location. The new menu item, named Beyond Fried Chicken after KFC’s partnership with producer Beyond Meat, will be the first plant-based chicken substitute introduced by a fast food chain. More than a dozen quick-service or fast-causal restaurants already sell meatless pork or beef dishes.

Yet, KFC’s corner on the fake-chicken market may not guarantee the chain success if there isn’t enough product to go around if and when they go national, experts say. If leaders don’t get that initial forecast right, they risk losing out on new customers—and with that, potential revenue. Just consider the uproar after one of its competitors sold out of a certain spicy sandwich. “How many times will the customer come back if they don’t get it the first two times?” says Dave Rossi, senior client partner and lead of Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial Manufacturing Advisory practice.

As with any launch, leadership needs to be able to anticipate how much product it’ll need to sell, and scale that by region, experts say. After all, there may be high consumer demand for, say, meatless chicken in one part of the country that’s just not matched in another. Customers, then, could be left wanting. Or, conversely, franchisees may be left buried under excess supplies.

But product forecasting can be even more challenging in today’s social media age, says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. One simple tweet about a new product could go viral overnight, bringing hordes of customers that organizations didn’t expect. “It’s that speed of communication that’s hard to control,” Rowley says. And that makes consumer demand much harder to predict than before the advent of social networking, he adds.

That’s where technology comes into play. Leaders can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to gather data on consumer behavior and tastes, which, in turn, can help improve product forecasting. “Fast food companies have to watch these trends and understand how Americans eat,” Rowley says.

The same goes for suppliers. Plant-based meat alternatives is “a huge growth opportunity” for manufacturers providing materials like food flavoring or stabilizers, says Sean McBurney, senior partner and sector leader for Korn Ferry’s North American Agriculture practice—ingredients that meatless products possible. If suppliers can’t meet the demand for those materials, they put their bottom line at risk—and KFC’s. “A big part of the supply chain is getting the consistency of supply to make those products,” McBurney says. “Everyone has to do their part.”

Messaging is also critical to successful product launches, experts say. Leadership needs to make sure that employees not only know the ins and outs of the product, but the cooking process, as well.

Arguably, KFC’s Beyond Fried Chicken is not for strict vegans, as news outlets report that the plant-based food will be cooked in the same fryers as meat items. But veganism has influenced the market that KFC is trying to capture: flexitarians—that is, omnivores who’ve cut back on their meat consumption. Flexitarians have grown in size in recent years: according to one Nielsen survey, about 22% of US households are buying plant-based substitutes today, a 1.6% jump from last year. Overall, flexitarians account for 37% of the country’s meat-alternative buyers, the survey found.

In the end, leaders need to make sure workers understand why their fast food joint made the change to plant-based meat in the first place. “Some of the target audience is probably also sensitive to the way it’s prepared,” Rossi says. “You have to get the training and communication to your workforce so they can interact with your customers and get the message across the right way.”