How the KFC Famous Bowl led me to a story

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Americans are gluttons. This we know. I have seen the Sunday night buffet at a barbecue joint in Wilson, N.C. I have watched contestants weigh in at 400 lbs.-plus on The Biggest Loser. What’s worse, we pretend we’re not. We gobble up books like Skinny Bitch, a vegan manifesto, and yet 85% of Americans scarf down the fried-meat sandwich known as a burger at least once a month.

So the success of the KFC Famous Bowl should not surprise us. It is a boffo, fat-assed, best-selling bonanza for Yum Brands, owner of KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and more.

You know what it is? It’s a plastic bowl, filled with breaded, deep fried chicken strips; corn; shredded cheese; gravy; and a thick layer of mashed potatoes. Thus:

Who needs utensils? Just give me a straw. / Yum Brands

I am completely fascinated by the KFC Famous Bowl. Have you all seen this classic Patton Oswalt routine?

So when David Novak, CEO of Yum Brands, offered to drop by last fall to flog his book, I happily accepted. I’d leafed through the galleys of his book about growing up in trailer parks or whatever. All I wanted to know was, How did they come up with the Bowl?

Turns out it’s not that different from what Oswalt describes. The lab scientists (yes, Yum tests every menu addition exhaustively) tried it out. Some execs thought it could never work, but Novak (the iconoclast of fast food!) became a huge champion.

But we couldn’t talk for 30 minutes just about one dish, so we got to to chatting about Yum’s global strategy. Turned out Yum’s international business had soared from 20% of profits at the time of its spin-off from PepsiCo to 50% today. What’s more, it was about to invade some very promising markets with Yankee interpretations of the local cuisine: notably, by bringing Taco Bell to Mexico, and opening a chain of Chinese restaurants in China (where Chinese food is usually referred to as “food”).

We had a story. Check it out in this week’s edition; you’ll see I worked in Oswalt’s best line in the penultimate graf.

For all my horrified fascination with the Famous Bowl, I’ve never worked up the intestinal fortitude to eat one. Have any of you? If so, review in comments, please.