Here's Why KFC Isn't As Popular Among Fast Food Fans Today

Despite KFC being around for over 70 years and having over 25,000 locations worldwide, it's not as popular as it once was. If you drive by a KFC today, you may wonder if it's even open. If there's a Chick-fil-A and Popeyes within eyesight, you'll notice their drive-thru lines and parking lots overflowing with customers. Yet, fewer people than before are braving the local KFC. Once upon a time, you could count on KFC to have fairly decent chicken. And if you weren't in a southern city, it was likely the best-fried chicken in town. Unfortunately, the last time you ate at KFC, you were probably disappointed in your experience. So, what happened? Why isn't KFC good anymore?

Interestingly enough, KFC's decline started the moment Colonel Sanders sold the chain to investors back in the 1960s. With many of us having fairly recent memories of KFC being a somewhat decent place to eat chicken, we wanted to look more closely at everything that has contributed to its decline. Overall, it comes down to food quality, service issues, and the company's inability to understand what its customers want.

Colonel Sanders hated what happened to KFC after he sold it

Colonel Harland Sanders first started selling fried chicken at a small motel restaurant in Kentucky, where he perfected his secret fried chicken recipe with 11 herbs and spices. In 1952, he thought he had a product good enough to franchise. However, when he barreled into franchises to visit, he was known to give terse criticisms of the gravy, such as: "How do you serve this G**-d****** slop? With a straw?" Or he'd declare the biscuits and gravy too horrible even to feed his dogs (via New Yorker).

Unfortunately, the food quality began to decline after Sanders sold the chain to investors in 1964. When Hebublein later acquired KFC in the 1970s, the food quality began to spiral. A former employee from the 1970s said, "the gravy came as dried grease in huge barrels and was referred to as 'sludge.'"

In 1978, the KFC in Bowling Green, Kentucky, tried to sue Sanders for libel in connection to his condescending comments about the quality of the food. Sanders compared the gravy to "wallpaper paste" and called the new crispy chicken "a d***fried doughball stuck on some chicken." However, the court threw the case out, saying that Sanders was talking in general about the decline of the food at all KFCs and not just the one in Bowling Green (per The Day).

The food continues to decline in quality

We don't want to imagine what Colonel Sanders would think about the food at KFC today, let alone what he would say. Suffice it to say, it wouldn't be anything nice. If you'd like to taste fried chicken the way the Colonel intended, you can visit the Claudia Sanders Dinner House in Shelbyville, Kentucky, where the Colonel developed his original chicken recipe. Despite being labeled "original recipe," KFC chicken barely resembles the original chicken anymore. Still, companies that have owned KFC have gone to great lengths to keep the recipe secret, even by buying spices from different vendors.

When Mashed visited KFC to determine how much food $10 would buy, we discovered that the flavor of 11 herbs and spices had devolved into nothing but an overwhelming amount of salt. So, if they're still using the special spice blend, it's a minuscule amount compared to the salt. The gravy was bitter, and the biscuits were practically dough balls.

And it's not just us who think the food has gone downhill. All you have to do is take a look at Reddit or Quora, and you'll find everyone asking what happened to KFC and why the chicken has gotten so bad. Some people think that part of the problem is that KFC changed from lard to trans-fat-free oil in 2007. However, the company claimed the new soybean-based oil would keep the chicken flavor the same (via Reuters). Spoiler alert: it didn't.

KFC's drive-through service isn't fast enough

Back in 2016, QSR Magazine's drive-through study of 15 fast-food restaurants revealed an average 203.91-second wait time at KFC. Three minutes and 23 seconds wasn't too bad compared to Chick-fil-A's four minutes and 17-second wait. But, by 2021, CNN Business said that the average drive-through time at KFC had grown to a yawning chasm of six minutes and 30 seconds.

One thing that seemed to clog up drive-through lanes was people there to pick up orders from the app and internet that were already ready. In 2020, KFC revealed two new restaurant designs for new restaurants that would feature one drive-through lane for regular customers and another for picking up items from a food pickup rack for orders made online or through the app (via CNN business).

However, by 2021, KFC was advocating for online and app orderers to come inside to pick up their orders from a Quick Pick-up location in the restaurant. As an incentive to come inside, KFC offered free large fries to anyone who ordered at least $5 worth of food and came inside to retrieve it.

KFC drive-through orders have a tendency to be inaccurate

One of the most infuriating things that can happen when ordering fast food is to get home and realize your order isn't correct. In 2016, KFC was only accurate on drive-through orders an average of 88.6% of the time. The percentage was worse than nearly every top burger place where the employees were having to mind condiment and topping changes (via QSR Magazine).

By 2019, the accuracy at KFC had dropped even further to a dismal 66.1% (via QRS Magazine). That means you had more than a three out of 10 chance in 2019 of your order being wrong or even getting someone else's order rather than your own. If KFC were a school subject, the employees would have failed. How difficult is it to put a couple of pieces of chicken, a biscuit, and a side order into a box?

When QSR Magazine did its drive-through accuracy study again in 2021, KFC had made vast improvements, bringing its accuracy report card to a solid A-, with 92.3% accuracy. Unfortunately, a Statista study shows KFC is back to its old ways with a B- score of 82.6% in 2022. Ruin someone's supper order enough times, and they're not coming back. That's just the way the fried chicken crumbles.

KFC doesn't have a reputation for being clean

It's bad when you walk into a restaurant and expect it to be dirty, but that's the sad state of most KFCs. We understand that fried chicken distributes lots of crumbs and that it's greasy, but that should make franchise owners more likely to schedule regular dining room cleanups. However, now that Yum! Brands own KFC; it looks for investors who want to buy up several restaurants in the area rather than a singular KFC. So, gone is the franchise owner with a singular KFC location who spends a lot of time in the store making sure everything is tasty and clean. Of course, some locations may be clean, but it feels like clean ones are the exception rather than the rule.

When restaurant tables are nasty, and floors are sticky, it doesn't create an inviting environment for customers to sit in. One Redditor said they tend to skip the dining room because the restaurant and kitchen are always dirty, unlike other fast food chains. So, customers who like their hot foods piping hot or don't want to eat on the go are going to go elsewhere for a sit-down dining experience.

Unfortunately, it's not just the tables that are gross. In a 2016 study, 6% of drive-through customers even complained about the outside walls being dirty or damaged (via QRS Magazine). Once again, it's likely a result of franchise owners having multiple locations rather than a singular restaurant to upkeep.

Customer service isn't what it used to be

Over on CustomerService Scoreboard, KFC is ranked 783 out of 1009 companies for customer service quality. Their rating falls in the "terrible" range, with a score of 24.24 out of 200 possible points. An anonymous commenter said they spent over $50 on their food only to have an employee give away part of their order to someone else. When they realized what had happened, the KFC employee they talked to didn't even bother to apologize. And many commenters complain about employees being downright rude to them.

However, the rudeness goes both ways because customers can be rude and entitled Karens as well. One employee on Reddit explained that being paid so little and having to handle disagreeable customers "does something to a person," and it can be "too much to handle." Another Redditor explained that not making much and being treated poorly by customers causes them to work more slowly and not care less about everything. According to Indeed, the average employee at KFC that's not a manager makes between $12.73 and $14.39 per hour. With that type of pay, you shouldn't be surprised that most employees aren't giving you the royal treatment and are simply not paid enough to do so.

Many of KFC's menu items have been failures, even if we miss some of them

A Mashed poll found that around 28% of customers think the Pot Pie is the worst item KFC currently has on its menu. All that buttery crust and creamy filling provides you with as much saturated fat (25 grams) as if you sat down and ate 17 and a half chicken legs. Another menu item you should probably never order at KFC is its Famous Bowl. We've heard this monstrosity referred to as a "failure bowl," and it honestly looks like a slop bucket ready to feed hogs.

When Reddit wanted to know which menu item you should avoid, an employee revealed a disgusting fact about its BBQ sandwiches which makes us glad they're gone. They said the sandwich was "made from chicken too old and stale to give to the homeless shelters, so they soak it in BBQ sauce until it can be pulled, and then they keep it on the heater for a month."

One failed item that many of us miss is the grilled chicken. If you got it fresh, it was as good as at any charbroiled chicken place. Unfortunately, a former KFC general manager says on Quora that it didn't sell well since people tend to come to KFC for fried chicken. When customers ordered grilled chicken, it had been sitting around for hours getting dry, which hurt the overall perception of an otherwise tasty menu item.

KFC has had several marketing fails

In 2006, KFC decided global fame wasn't enough and decided to advertise to aliens in the UFO-enthusiast tourist destination city of Rachel, Nevada. To do so, they made an 87,500-square-foot Colonel Sanders out of tile in the desert. As far as we know, no extraterrestrials responded to the ad.

In 2015, KFC created an ad campaign featuring a caricature version of Colonel Sanders played by a variety of celebrities, but viewers didn't care for it. Yum! Brands CEO Greg Creed told Entrepreneur that he was "very excited that this work is really distinctive and disruptive. And I am actually quite happy that 20 percent hate it because now they at least have an opinion. They're actually talking about KFC, and you can market to love and hate; you cannot market to indifference."

For years, KFC ads have told us that its chicken is "finger-lickin' good." However, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, licking fingers didn't seem so appealing anymore when we were obsessively sanitizing our hands. As a result, the company retired the slogan, at least temporarily.

On November 9, 2022, KFC sent a text message to German KFC customers inviting them to eat at KFC to celebrate Kristallnacht, which was a night Nazis initiated attacks on Jews during World War II. KFC apologized, saying that a bot sent it through "a semi-automated content creation process linked to calendars that include national observances" (via Newsweek).

It hasn't kept up with the competition

The adage "change or die" holds true now more than ever when it comes to restaurants. There's so much competition that staying relevant is a must to keep customers. Currently, it's not uncommon to drive down the main strip in a city and see five or six chicken restaurants, all within a mile, including KFC.

QSR stats from 2021 shows that KFC was number 14 when it came to how many millions of dollars it was making in sales. Still, Chick-fil-A made over 2.7 times more money than KFC did. However, when you look at their actual unit sales, KFC was way down the list at No. 29, beat out by Chick-fil-A, Raising Cains, Zaxby's, Popeyes, Bojangles, El Pollo Loco, and Wingstop.

KFC has been attempting a comeback for years. In 2014, it offered grilled chicken as a healthier option. In 2016, KFC retrained its employees and guaranteed to remake any food that customers didn't like. In 2017, KFC's started using antibiotic-free chicken. In 2022, they tested wraps for the first time, offered finger sporks, debuted Beyond Meat nuggets, and revamped 70% of its stores with a Next Generation design. None of these plans have worked because KFC hasn't gotten to the heart of what customers are looking for in a chicken restaurant: good chicken, a clean restaurant, and reliable, friendly service.

KFC doesn't appeal to the health conscious

There once was a rumor that Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC to make people forget it was fried. Yes, It's true that KFC has made some valiant attempts to appear more health-conscious, but that wasn't one of them. In 2004, KFC actually had to defend itself in court when it falsely claimed its food was a healthy choice for a low-carb diet plan. However, KFC did switch to trans-fat-free oil in 2007, unsuccessfully tried out sodium-laden grilled chicken in 2014, started using antibiotic-free chicken in 2017, and offered unhealthy vegetarian fried chicken nuggets briefly in 2002.

Unfortunately, KFC has yet to hit the mark. There's very little on the menu you can order if you're health-conscious other than a side salad and maybe a side of sweet kernel corn since grilled chicken is off the menu. When you look at the nutritional information for everything, you'll notice that the fat and sodium content is through the roof. If you get two pieces of dark meat chicken, a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, a biscuit, and a small beverage, you'll end up consuming 870 calories, 39 grams of fat, and 2410 milligrams of sodium. According to the FDA, that's 50% of the fat and 110 milligrams more sodium than you should be consuming for the whole day in just one meal.

KFC has also declined internationally

As of 2021, there were 26,934 KFC restaurants around the world, with the numbers growing exponentially each year. However, just because new restaurants are opening doesn't mean that KFC was doing a better job in other countries outside the U.S. When Rave Reviews analyzed Twitter posts, they found KFC to be the most hated fast-food brand on Twitter in the Bahamas, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Singapore, New Zealand, UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, and Turkey.

Customers in Scotland report the chicken being overly greasy and tasting of nothing but salt and the coleslaw being oily and made from thick cabbage stalks. In fact, across the UK, customers complain about dirty restaurants and sub-par food (via Reddit). A customer in China says that KFC is declining there as well. They've changed the chicken recipe and keep removing popular menu items. When a Malaysian woman complained about the quality of her KFC chicken sandwich on TikTok, other Malaysians commented about the high price and low quality they've been experiencing at KFC (via The Smart Local). Customers in Australia report long waits in line and food quality that doesn't always hit the mark (via Oz Bargain). So, it's not just U.S. KFCs making people less than happy with their food and service.

It's been the subject of various rumors and scandals

KFC has also had to endure its fair share of scandals. Back in 2014, there was a false rumor on social media that KFC was no longer using chickens but mutated test-tube chicken-like organisms with more legs and wings. There were even citations to a fake university study and fake photos circulating. In 2015, Now8News, a website often associated with fake news, released an article and photographs falsely claiming that the FDA had raided chicken farms in Springdale, Arkansas, that were supplying mutated chickens to KFC.

Another photo circulating on public media in 2015 was that of a deep-fried rat that a Devorise Dixon supposedly found among his chicken tenders in a Compton, California, KFC. However, when KFC tried to reach him to make things right, he didn't respond.

In 2017, a social media photo of a KFC in Dearborn, Michigan, showed a sign in English and Arabic announcing two lines: one for men and one for women. The claim was that this KFC in a heavily Muslim-populated U.S. city was following Sharia law. It turned out that the photo was real, but it was taken in a KFC in Saudi Arabia rather than in the U.S. Even when rumors are proven untrue, people tend to remember the rumor more than the fact that it's not true.