Behind The Scenes: KFC Great Taste Tours
KFC has OCD, and we are glad it does. We all have at least one relative who conjures culinary signs and wonders, but we know not to offer our assistance in the kitchen. The kitchen is their sacred domain; a place from where you may be banished and excommunicated for using the wrong cutlery, crockery, knife or attitude. KFC is this relative, as we found out on the first edition of the Great Taste Tour organised for the press to take a peek behind the curtain at KFC’s operation at the Kira Road branch.
What is this KFC Great Taste Tour? It is not just KFC inviting “the public” (vicariously through us) behind the scenes to see how every KFC product arrives in that iconic brown paper bag. It is also their way of showing us just how high their standards of quality and cleanliness are, because, for a worldwide fast food franchise; hygiene, efficiency, and consistency are just as important as how good the food tastes.
Before you are allowed into the KFC kitchen, however, there are a few No’s you need to keep in mind:
No mobile phones (probably because they may fall in)
No jewelry (probably because it may fall in)
No open shoes (no risk of toes falling in, but, you know, hot oil)
As soon as you walk in, there is a little box of disposable hairnets on your left and a washing station, with two separate sinks on your right, that is used by employees every 30 minutes. Every. 30. Minutes. Apparently, a lot can happen in 30 minutes, especially… CROSS-CONTAMINATION. You get a sense, at some point in this tour that cross-contamination is Public Enemy No. 1 in these parts as it is mentioned at every stage, with controls against it from storage, to preparation, to post-preparation storage. Do surgeons wash their hands or change gloves every 30 minutes when in theatre? Do they not worry as much about cross-contamination?
You may ask yourself this and many other questions as you wring your soapy hands at the sink before you are suddenly struck from behind with… wait, a war cry?
The Champs Cheer.
Even if you have not seen the New Zealand rugby team play rugby, you have definitely seen them get in formation and yell things at their opponents that the other guys don’t understand. The KFC Champs Cheer is sort of like that, except with smiles instead of intimidating scowls; an impromptu flash-mob summoned to celebrate employees’ achievements, birthdays and generally boost morale in the work-force.
As everybody returns to their workstations like nothing just happened, you are herded towards the coolers. Cooler-s because there are three of them; one for dry goods (your seasoning, spices, and flour), one for non-bloody items (especially vegetables) and one for bloody items (the chicken, itself). You already know why: CROSS CONTAMINATION. All three coolers are kept at specific sub-zero temperatures to prevent bacteria and other unwanted organisms from making a home out of the dormant food. In this hi-tech ice-bucket begins your chicken’s journey through the kitchen.
KFC chicken (if not in burger form) falls into one of two categories; Original Recipe which tends to have a soft, but firm layer of breading, and Hot & Crispy whose breading is a little thicker, more brittle and a whole lot spicier. These two never come in contact with one another until they are served. Never ever ever. They have different flour pools, fryers, and even holding cabinets because (say it with me now) CROSS CONTAMINATION! What they do have in common, though, is the process.
Seven is the lucky number. The chicken pieces are first inspected to ensure there are no internal organs or feathers before they are dunked into water and twirled seven times to remove any excess juices. The pieces are then placed in a shallow pit of flour and rotated seven times to get maximum coverage on every piece, except the drumsticks. See, when you have been in the game long enough, there are details you pick up on that can only make your product better, such as the airspace in every drumstick. Close to the chicken’s “ankle”, the drumstick tends to narrow dramatically creating an airspace where the breading is most vulnerable to bursting when fried and looking unsightly. The solution? Double-dip the drumstick so it has twice as much breading. If that does not convince you that KFC knows their chicken better than most, nothing will.
What goes into the breading? “If I knew, even me I would go and start my own KFC”,
Jeff, one of the gentlemen leading the tour admits before he demonstrates the frying part of the process. KFC’s Original Recipe made from an 11 herb secret spice combination developed in 1952 by Colonel Sanders, the mustachioed old white guy on the logo is one of the world’s best kept secrets, used in all their branches worldwide, but known only by a secret few.
Completely covered in delicious secrets, the chicken pieces are moved to their corresponding Henny Penny Fryer (separate ones for Original and Hot & Crispy recipes of course), which is kind of a big deal in the world of fryers. These Henny Penny’s have four tiers in which one slides up to four trays of chicken hovering above a vat of hot oil. A little digital screen with red, symmetrical characters glowing back lets you know at what temperature the oil is. When the optimum temperature is reached, the words DROP appear and a giant lever sends the chicken into the fryer’s bubbling hot depths from whence it re-emerges hot, crispy and golden.
As the fried chicken goes into one of two upright holding cabinets (because, one more time: CROSS CONTAMINATION) to stay hot, we notice a large screen right above it with bright coloured blocks that appear, disappear and rearrange themselves known as the Kitchen Display Screen. As you make your order, the KDS relays it to the kitchen staff, so that even as you are trying to work out your change at the counter or drive-through window, someone is already hooking you up with something delicious from one of the upright holding cabinets. In fact, if you use the Drive-Thru; KFC aims to ensure that you make your order, make your payment and pick up your brown bag within 2.5 minutes or less.
So yes, if KFC were a person, they would get an unqualified, pedestrian diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder from yours truly. Is it all necessary that they be so obsessive about hygiene and consistency? Very. The reason why anyone visits KFC, Kira Road (or any KFC branch for that matter) is because of the reputation the KFC brand has gained globally. Just as one branch may benefit from the brand’s glowing global credentials, one branch’s cross-contamination crisis can just as easily sink it in an era of social media where everybody is a critic and a reporter.
Sometimes looking behind the scenes ruins the final product, but this experience does the opposite. Having made it through the Great Taste Tour (or just this article), there is a renewed respect you have for KFC as you open up your own little red cardboard box; you see more than just pieces of fried chicken. You see decades of institutional memory working tirelessly to improve what already seems like a perfect operation. You see a network of restaurants worldwide that depend on each other to maintain high standards of hygiene, taste, efficiency and the reputation that comes with them. You see the reason why, in a world with thousands of fried chicken recipes and outlets, this one has managed to plant a flag almost everywhere, becoming to fried chicken what Colgate is to toothpaste.