The Truth About KFC's $5 Fill Up

Pretty much everybody loves a good deal, whether it's on stylish clothes, a new computer, or crispy, juicy fried chicken. And when it comes to that last one, few businesses know the value of a deal like KFC. Enter the $5 Fill Up, which has been on a rollercoaster of popularity over the past decade.

The $5 Fill Up is a nostalgic throwback, a cheap way to satisfy hunger, a calorie bomb, and the subject of at least one disputed international advertisement. They're value meals by another name, and the Fill Up concept (and price) has shifted to give the people what they want over the years (hello, Secret Recipe Fries and Famous Bowl). And while you might be familiar with the taste, there's a lot you probably don't know about the $5 Fill Up and how it's affected KFC. Here's the untold truth of your longtime favorite KFC order.

The $5 Fill Up started as a throwback to gas station meals

The very first KFC started in 1930 in a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky, and it was named Sanders Court & Café. When the restaurant launched the $5 Fill Up meals in 2009, the brand leaned on that history. Coupons for the first $5 Fill Ups were handed out at gas stations in the United States, "where the KFC Colonel will top off Americans' gas tanks and their stomachs for only $5," according to a news report in CSP Daily News at the time. The idea was that the menu item was inspired by the gas station prices in those early years when KFC had just started.

"Our $5 Fill-Up meal harkens back to a time when you could fill up your car for just five dollars," KFC's then chief marketing officer, Kevin Hochman, said in a 2014 press release when KFC repeated the stunt. "We're rolling back our prices so that our consumers can purchase five different real meals that each include a cookie and drink for just five dollars, too."

But if KFC wanted to really be historically accurate on pricing, the company would've had to take a second look at the inflation calculator. Back in 1930, $5 was the equivalent of $71.76 in 2014 after adjusting for inflation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The $5 Fill Up is not always $5

When the $5 Fill Up started, $5 was the ultimate fast food price goal. Consider, if you will, the $5 Footlong. Subway may have had the catchiest $5-inspired song, but KFC has the fried chicken. Only now, the monetary part of the original "$5 Fill Up" name is incorrect.

Reports of raised prices popped up as early as 2016. That year, a person posted in the Reddit channel r/fastfood that the $5 Fill Ups in their area were $6. One person reported that their KFC had put an orange $6 sticker over the original $5 sticker. Another poster in the Reddit channel r/kfc in 2019 noted that their regional KFC's Fill Up prices have gone up to $6 as well.

If you go to the KFC website for an online order, the meal boxes are simply named Fill Ups, and with the name change came a price change. A disclaimer at the bottom of the ordering page online in part reads, "Prices may vary. Tax extra." The three-piece tenders Fill Up costs as much as $6.99 in a city like Denver while a one-piece Fill Up costs $5.49. In parts of New York City, all Fill Ups cost the same: $6.59. So while it still beats many of the meal prices at other fast food chicken joints, it doesn't have the same $5 ring to it.

The $5 Fill Up is partially credited with turning around the business since 2014

In 2014, KFC officially lost its spot to Chick-fil-A as the number one fast food chicken chain when it comes to sales. Promotion of the $5 Fill Up was part of the plan to regain the top spot. Citi Research analysts found that same-store sales grew by 7 percent and 3 percent in the first two quarters of 2015, compared to a 2 percent drop in the first half of 2014. The analysts credited the $5 Fill Up as a major reason for this success, according to Business Insider.

"We believe the positive sales momentum is likely to continue," Citi Research analysts wrote in a research note obtained by Business Insider. "Of note, $5 Fill Ups continue to resonate very well and lower gas prices remain a tailwind." Sales continued to grow over the next five years, and CNBC wrote in 2019 that the combo meal led to KFC opening more stores than it closed for the first time in around half a decade.

"To this day, it is a huge part of our business and why our core customer comes back," KFC's U.S. President Kevin Hochman told CNBC.

The five $5 Fill Up options have remained largely the same since 2014

In 2014 when KFC started to promote its $5 Fill Up again, there were five choices: a one-piece breast Fill Up, a two-piece drum and thigh Fill Up, a tenders Fill Up, a Famous Bowl Fill Up (made with mashed potatoes, sweet corn, and popcorn chicken topped with gravy and cheese), or the pot pie Fill Up. All of the options came with a medium drink and chocolate chip cookie, and some came with a biscuit.

Things don't look all that different if you look at the Fill Up menu today, which is good news for the all the die-hard fans out there. You can also get additional sides with some Fill Ups now, which is ideal if you just can't get enough of those creamy mashed potatoes and gravy. You can also get a chicken tenders Fill Up with more tenders (at an additional cost, of course). Just keep in mind that KFC changes which Fill Ups are offered at different points, so don't be afraid if you can't find them all at your current location.

The $5 Fill Up inspired $20 and $30 Fill Up family-sized options

With the success of the $5 Fill Up, KFC announced a family option called the $20 Fill Up. It, too, took off. Today, there are a few different Fill Up options with different types of chicken. Whichever you order, it comes with four biscuits, two large mashed potatoes and gravy, and a large coleslaw.

KFC didn't stop with the Fill Ups after catering to single eaters and small families, either. On April 1, 2020, as restaurants coped with the global pandemic and many non-fast food restaurants shut down, KFC debuted the $30 Fill Up. This option was designed for leftovers. So much so that the tagline for the meal is "Enough food for today — and tomorrow." It also includes instructions on the receipt on how to reheat the meal, according to QSR Magazine.

The options for the $30 Fill Up are similar to the $20 Fill Up choices, only there could be an extra 12 tenders or an extra eight bone-in chicken pieces, depending on your order. Both family-size options have a similar value appeal as the original $5 Fill Up that inspired them.

Each $5 Fill Up is between 760 and 1,350 calories

When the $5 Fill Up first debuted in 2009, it could have more than 2,100 calories and 104 grams of fat in each meal, according to the Houston Chronicle. That was if you ordered everything extra, including potato wedges and extra crispy chicken instead of the original recipe. The slimmed-down option (in terms of calories, at least) contained around 1,200 calories and 55 grams of fat. Granted, Fill Ups were a little different back in those days.

Modern $5 Fill Ups are less of a load, if only slightly. Depending on sides and which Fill Up option you choose, the meal is between 760 and 1,350 calories. The biggest variation comes in the breast Fill Up (760 to 1,340 calories) and the tenders Fill Up (780 to 1,350 calories). The latter's variation depends on how many tenders you get, while the breast Fill Up depends on the type of chicken. An original chicken breast has 390 calories, according to KFC's own nutrition calculator, whereas the extra crispy has 530 calories.

That's not to say the other options are necessarily healthy, but they do top out at a lower number of calories (1,120).

You can thank the $5 Fill Up for the KFC Famous Mac and Cheese Bowl

Fried chicken fans were focused on the chicken sandwich wars for much of the summer of 2019. But KFC turned its attention to mac and cheese lovers that year with a new $5 Fill Up: the Famous Mac and Cheese Bowl. It essentially took the organization of the original Famous Bowl and replaced the mashed potatoes with mac and cheese. On top of that goes crispy popcorn chicken, and finally, more cheese is sprinkled on top to finish it off. You can also opt for a spicy version that uses KFC's Nashville Hot sauce.

"Mac and Cheese has a cult-like following, and bowl food is a trend that isn't going away anytime soon," Andrea Zahumensky, KFC's U.S. chief marketing officer, said in a press release. "So, it made perfect sense to call up a favorite side dish to the big leagues, in a way that only we could, with Mac and Cheese Bowls."

The fast food critics at The Takeout took umbrage that the Famous Bowl spin-off lacked gravy, but there is all that cheese to make up for it. Just note that the Famous Mac and Cheese Bowl is only available at participating KFCs, so double-check that your local spot has it before jetting off for a try.

KFC sells $5 Fill Ups for even cheaper in other countries

The $5 Fill Up price tag was initially designed to catch the eyes of American fast food eaters. An even sweeter bargain (at least for those who value as much food for as little a cost as possible) can be found outside KFC's home country borders, though.

In England, KFC has offered Fill Ups for £1.99 (around $2.50). The catch is that it's a lunchtime-only special. Like the nearly 150 other countries with KFC locations, England KFCs have different menu items than those stateside — and that goes for the Fill Ups, too. The £1.99 lunch Fill Up includes a mini burger, regular fries, and two hot wings.

The lunch Fill Ups aren't always on the menu. The most recent return was in 2020 while the United Kingdom was following lockdown protocols. That didn't stop people from getting excited about fast food fried chicken deals. According to The Daily Record, the news elicited fan responses such as, "Oh hello you dirty berty. Get in my belly." Unfortunately for that fan, the latest lunch Fill Up run only lasted until April 19, The Daily Record reported in March.

$5 Fill Ups got the brand into hot water with Australia's Ad Standards department

In Australia, the $5 Fill Up (or the $4.95 Fill Up as it's known Down Under) is only available until 4 p.m. That positions it squarely as a daytime meal, but that's not what some of the TV advertisements for the meal depicted.

One popular ad in November of 2019 showed a group of women denied entrance to a club at night. A nearby billboard advertising the $4.95 Fill Up deal lures them away from the spot they'd just been denied from. The same billboard also advises that the deal is only available until 4 p.m., a time that it very clearly was not in that TV ad.

Nevertheless, one of the women says "shut up and take my money," and the next shot shows them eating KFC in a car. KFC said the ad isn't deceptive because it "clearly states twice that the Fill Up deal is until 4 p.m.," according to the Daily Mail. Ad Standards Australia disagreed, citing the fact that two women are shown with the Fill Up boxes as well as eating chicken legs.

In the end, the ad was banned and was added as just one more of KFC's sketchy moves.