Why KFC runs out of chicken

I’ve written about this before on this site, but the “why does KFC run out of chicken?” question just keeps popping up all over the Internet. I figured I’d do a recap of that old post, in hopes that the new post title might show up in search engines and spread some answers. Also, keep in mind that I worked for KFC over twenty years ago, so things obviously might have changed since then.

There are two instances where your local KFC might be out of chicken.

In the first case, they’re simply out of cooked chicken. This is actually a common occurrence.

Original Recipe chicken is cooked in a huge pressure cooker. It’s a giant machine, and every KFC I’ve ever been in only had one cooker. I don’t remember the exact capacity of the cooker, but it was something like 12 pieces of chicken per rack, with 5 racks total per batch. Each batch took around 16 minutes to cook, so therefore your average KFC can cook somewhere around 240 pieces of Original Recipe chicken per hour.

Of course, KFC has quality control standards like any other fast food restaurant. So the cooks just can’t come in first thing in the morning and cook all 3,000 pieces of chicken for that day. The product would get stale and nasty.

So KFC managers needed to anticipate that day’s demand. And they usually did a pretty good job of it. District managers would keep abreast of all the “regional events” going on, and they’d call the store managers to remind them that, for instance, the Atlanta Braves were in a playoff game that weekend, and to expect an increase in bucket orders that day. Likewise, store managers were expected to keep on top of “local events”, like a local megachurch picnic or a Little League group having a end-of-the-season dinner. The store manager would then plan the staff and cooking accordingly.

Of course, KFC managers are only human. They can’t keep tabs on every local event, and it would only take one person ordering five 21-piece buckets for a family reunion to screw up the demand curve… especially the guy who would inexplicably come through the drive-thru at 8:30 on a Tuesday night wanting 100+ pieces of chicken. In any case, the only thing the store can do is make more chicken, and doing that takes time… at least 16 minutes, to be exact.

Extra Crispy chicken is cooked differently. It’s made in large open fryers, much like the fryers McDonald’s uses to cook fries. In a rush, you could cheat a bit and cram a few extra pieces of Extra Crispy into the fryer, but when someone comes through and wipes out KFC’s stock of chicken, there’s not a lot of good that those 3 or 4 extra pieces of chicken can do.

In any event, the bottom line is this: KFC can only make so many pieces of chicken per hour, and although they could cook chicken constantly, it’s a waste of an expensive product since it has to be thrown out after a certain amount of time. So the store managers have to anticipate the demand. They usually did a good job in estimating how much chicken to make, especially on holidays, football Sundays and summer weekends. But since the store managers can’t know everything, they’d sometimes get taken by surprise.

One time we had a small business owner come in on a random Thursday evening. He’d made his office work late to meet a deadline, and wanted to buy them KFC for dinner. Presto: 200 pieces of chicken out the door. I recall another instance where a panicked mom came into the store. It was her kid’s birthday, and a local sub shop had misplaced her order for a giant “party sub”. So she wanted several large buckets for the birthday party.

Which brings me to another point. The panicked mom wanted mostly drumsticks, as they’re popular with children. An order for 60 drumsticks could screw up other people’s orders, since KFC guidelines at the time said that you needed to include a thigh and a drumstick with most meals. What was worse was when a large order requested “Extra Crispy only” or (God forbid) “Extra Crispy, white meat only”. When I worked there, store managers would ask such customers if they wouldn’t mind mixing the order between Extra Crispy and Original Recipe and white and dark meat, but some folks would insist on one or the other… which, as you might guess, would screw things up for an hour or more.

* * *

The second way a KFC could run out of chicken was to… actually run out of chicken. As in, there’s no chicken anywhere in the store. This was actually a pretty rare thing, but it did happen on occasion. And that has to do with KFC’s suppliers.

Contrary to anything PETA might tell you, KFC doesn’t own their own “chicken farms”. They don’t raise their own chickens, nor do they research ways to genetically alter their chickens to make their breasts so large the poor birds can’t walk. In fact, it’s much more mundane than that. KFC gets its chicken from the same suppliers that other restaurants and school cafeterias do: restaurant supply companies like Gold Kist and Sysco.

Whole (cut-up) chickens were delivered to my store by a Gold Kist driver several times a week. Each chicken came in a clear plastic bag, and appeared to be a whole chicken… until the bag was opened and the chicken fell apart into separate pieces. What happened next depended on whether it was going to end up as Extra Crispy or Original Recipe: Extra Crispy chicken was marinated in buttermilk, while Original Recipe was marinated in a brine. Eventually, though, the bird would be breaded and fried… and in the end it really wasn’t that much different than the way your grandma made fried chicken, only on an industrial scale.

So… yeah. KFC gets their chicken from outside suppliers. And like any kind of outside supplier for any type of product, the supplier can occasionally drop the ball. Maybe they’re out of chicken. Maybe they screwed up the order and somehow forgot the chicken, or shipped the wrong kind. Maybe they shipped 3 cases of chicken instead of 30. Maybe the driver goofed up and gave the chicken to another customer. Maybe the driver is stuck in traffic. Maybe the truck broke down. Maybe the driver is sick that day, and the substitute driver is running late because he doesn’t know the area. Or maybe the KFC store manager got busy with something and missed order deadline. I don’t know… use your imagination.

As I said, this didn’t happen very often, but boy were people mad when it did! And sadly, the whole thing was simply beyond our control.

2 Replies to “Why KFC runs out of chicken”

  1. Happens often at our local kfc. 4 times to me. Same location. If fact 3 times while out of town company were visiting, no special holiday. Its a family joke now. “Hey do you think kfc has any chicken?”. The first time I thought it was a joke. The guy came out and said ” we have everything but chicken”. I was looking for the hidden camrea.

  2. just happened in portland ,victoria australia. 7pm ordered 8 pieces, reply was sorry we only have 6. 4 hours til closing time.?
    maybe they should have closed.

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