I am a lover of all things fast food, but one of my favorite aspects is the innovation behind each item. When you pick up some weirdo new burger at a chain restaurant, dripping with whatever new sauce they’ve just released, you’re biting into an idea that was thought up by actual human beings.
This innovation is exactly why I've always wanted to visit a fast-food test kitchen. So when the Kentucky Fried Chicken team slid into my inbox and asked if I’d like to visit their test kitchen and headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, it was an enthusiastic yes on my end. It was time to see how the chicken-sausage gets made.
Where Is KFC's Headquarters?
Kentucky Fried Chicken is headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. It was founded in 1930 — not too far away from Louisville in a town called Corbin — when Colonel Harland Sanders (did you know his first name was Harland?) bought a roadside motel and started frying up chicken.
The first franchised KFC opened in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1952, and the rest is history.
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What Are the 11 Herbs and Spices?
Every single person I talked to that works for KFC told me that, yes, there really is a secret recipe for KFC's fried chicken. Every one of those people also allege that the recipe is on a handwritten note, inside a safe, inside a vault, somewhere in the building. I assume it’s also guarded by that big, three-headed dog from “Harry Potter” and a room full of flying, poisonous darts, but nobody would confirm that.
According to Food Innovation Technologist Mike Showalter, the breading for the chicken arrives pre-mixed in a package. Showalter is the guy in charge of the chicken-frying standards at KFC. Royalty, really. Apparently, the package that employees receive at the restaurant is actually the result of two different deliveries, where two suppliers arrive with each half of the ingredients and combine them, creating the mixture the restaurants use.
I was trying really hard to not think about “Breaking Bad” while listening to all of this. It didn’t help at all that Showalter, when asked if he knew the secret recipe, simply put his hands up and said, “No, and I honestly don’t want to.”
When Did Colonel Sanders Die?
Colonel Sanders died in 1980 and isn’t nearly as old as all the black and white photos make it seem.
He really was a colonel, too, for a brief time. Add to that list: a steamboat operator, lawyer, and a ton of other things before he found his calling in chicken wings. People went nuts for his wings. He’s probably the original celebrity chef, to be honest.
For me, none of these facts were nearly as exciting as the reveal of his first name. I mean, Harland?!
Is there a Colonel Sanders Museum at the Headquarters?
Why, yes there is. The first jump scare of my day came when an animatronic Colonel Sanders came to life and started telling me his life story. Inside the museum you can discover things like his actual suit, desk, and some other fun pieces of KFC history. If only he could have been alive to see the chicken sandwich wars.
What Happens at the KFC Test Kitchen?
My day at the Yum! Foods corporate office (the group also owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) started with a chat with KFC’s Chief Marketing Officer, Nick Chavez. He told us about KFC’s goals as a brand, the differences between Original Recipe and Extra Crispy (it’s the batter), and a few upcoming menu items I’m not at liberty to discuss.
You better believe there’s a full replica of a KFC restaurant right there in the building for any employee with a sudden 4 p.m. mashed potato craving (or any other KFC sides, for that matter). It’s even got a drive-thru for office workers on the go, because apparently employees ride tricycles around the office? I didn’t see that happen, but I was told it’s common. It was at that point that I considered that this whole thing might be a big prank.
Next, we got to taste some of those special-up-and-coming menu additions while we met the innovation team. Claire Brandenburg, a Food Innovation Manager and the genius behind KFC's Secret Recipe Fries, has the coolest job I’ve ever heard of, I think.
A good amount of her time is spent right there in the kitchen itself, playing around, working out flavors, and innovating. When she and her team think they have a hit on their hands, they present it to leadership. They also (and here is where my jaw nearly hit the floor in jealousy) are sent on frequent “inspirational” trips to culinary-forward cities, dining at the best restaurants that city has to offer. These trips are used as inspiration to spark creativity back in the test kitchen.
If you hear of a job that sounds more awesome than that, you let me know.
After a demonstration and explanation about KFC’s frying process, we got to give it a shot ourselves. I will not tell you how bad I was at it. That is my little secret.
We fried up some crispy chicken nuggets, played around with different wrap combinations, and tasted some sauces going through R&D. Then it was finally time to bid goodbye to the test kitchen. KFC chicken, eaten straight out of the fryer, is pretty unreal. This has got to be the best KFC on the planet. They even made me a custom bucket with my big, ugly mug on it. Happy nightmares!
There were so many things I had on my mind after experiencing the amount of work behind the innovation of fast food. But the truth is, even with so much to think about, my mind really kept going back to one thing. When the kitchen team began their presentation, I was really half-listening.
The reason? This was my first time trying the new KFC Hot and Spicy wings, which came out in September and are available for a limited time in the U.S. I was too busy unironically licking every morsel of seasoning off my fingers; they are that good. I did all 10 fingers before I realized what was happening.
You got me, Harland. Mission accomplished.