Say Goodbye to Bones: How the Chicken Nugget Won

“No mess. No fuss. No bones about it.” That's the new mantra at Kentucky Fried Chicken corporate headquarters these days.

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“No mess. No fuss. No bones about it.”

That’s the new mantra at Kentucky Fried Chicken corporate headquarters these days, according to Jason Marker, KFC’s chief marketing officer in the U.S. “It’s just a very simple expression of where we’re going.” Indeed, on Sunday, KFC rolled out Original Recipe boneless chicken in all 4,500 of its U.S. locations.

But this modest innovation may not be just another new offering in a long line of new offerings. Executives at the 61-year-old franchise — long associated with family-sized buckets of traditional fried chicken — are so convinced that boneless chicken is the next big thing that they are starting to envision a KFC that doesn’t have on-the-bone chicken on its menu at all.

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Marker acknowledges that the chain’s customer base is aging, and that off-the-bone chicken is critical if the brand is to stay relevant and contemporary. “We joke a lot that young people today barely know that chicken has bones in it because of all the forms and formats that we eat it in,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure we meet the needs of those people.” In short, they’re trying to cater to the McNugget Generation.

Back in the 1970s, when most of us still ate chicken that looked like chicken, the industry’s processors were already working on ways to squeeze profit out of their product. Chicken historically offered meager profit margins — around 2%, says Steve Striffler, a University of New Orleans professor and author of Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food. For decades the only way processors could increase those margins was through mergers or acquisitions. But by the ‘70s, Tyson and other industry giants realized they needed to do more with the chicken itself.

“It wasn’t just Tyson,” says Striffler. “It was all of the poultry companies trying to figure this out, and the ones that didn’t aren’t around anymore.”

Around the same time, fast food restaurants started realizing there was a world beyond burgers and fries. According to several accounts — including this interesting Slate article about an obscure Cornell professor named Robert C. White who independently came up with the idea of the chicken nugget in 1963 — McDonald’s started considering burger alternatives in the late 1970s, partly in response to new federal dietary guidelines urging Americans to lay off the red meat.

And as the price of beef started rising as well, restaurants considered chicken a smart alternative because it was cheaper and perceived to be healthier than red meat. McDonald’s execs began experimenting with a range of non-burger options: chicken pot-pies, bone-in fried chicken, deep-fried onion chunks. None of them were successful, until they offered customers deep fried chicken chunks. The McNugget was born.

That was 1980, when about 80% to 85% of chicken consumed in the U.S. was unprocessed, says Striffler. The rest found its way into products like TV dinners or was formed into patties. Ten years later, the numbers had almost reversed: Americans were now dipping chicken nuggets, popping chicken chunks, and eating chicken strips in massive numbers. While the rotisserie chicken made a bit of a comeback in the mid-‘90s, the idea of eating the whole bird was, for the most part, a thing of the past.

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Today, boneless chicken is more popular than ever. Just look at the offerings at some of the country’s biggest fast food joints. You’re not going to find on-the-bone chicken at McDonald’s or Wendy’s or Burger King. You’re going to find a boneless Chicken and Ranch McWrap or a boneless Asiago Ranch Chicken Club or boneless Chicken Strips. Even Chik-Fil-A doesn’t have anything on the bone. And possibly the most egregious example of how far we’ve gotten away from the whole chicken itself: Popeye’s Rip’n Chick’n, which takes the chicken “finger” concept to a new level in that it vaguely resembles a deep-fried human hand.

And now even KFC, the last hold-out of traditional fried chicken among mainstream fast-food restaurants, is giving in. “Consumers today, they see chicken without a bone as being easier, mess-free, portable, more convenient,” says KFC’s Marker. According to internal KFC surveys, nearly four out of five servings of chicken in the U.S. today are off-the-bone, the inverse of 30 years ago.

The only thing holding KFC back was tradition. So the company’s executives asked themselves: What would Colonel Sanders do?” And in the end, they decided he would have embraced the boneless trend.

“This is precisely what Colonel Sanders would’ve done,” says John Cywinski, president of KFC in the U.S. “We’re very proud of our heritage. But we also recognize trends, and we pay a lot of attention to consumer insight. It would be irresponsible on our part not to address this growing demand for great tasting products off the bone.”