University of North Florida
In 1952, Harland Sanders, streetcar conductor turned restaurant entrepreneur, parlayed a love for fried chicken into the beginnings of a multi-national corporation. The self-styled Colonel Sanders developed a system for selling his “secret recipe” to restaurants who agreed to adhere exactly to his hard-wrought methods. In 1986, PepsiCo purchased Sanders’ Kentucky Fried Chicken outright, eventually folding it into its Yum brand of fast food restaurants. Since PepsiCo’s takeover of the Kentucky Fried Chicken brand name, the re-named KFC restaurant has become an economic juggernaut, a massive player in the fast food market worldwide. Curiously it is in China—a country largely politically, socially, and economically self-reliant in orientation until just decades ago—KFC has enjoyed its greatest triumph. Today, as the vanguard of Western businesses, Kendeji,as KFC is known in the China, stands as sparkling economic testament to the influx of capitalism in the aftermath of Mao’s revolution in China. More than a mere enterprise, KFC also represents an incursion of Western thought, a sort of American cultural exchange breaded and fried to a golden brown. The story of KFC in China is one of great success on an economic level, as well as an important example of how cultural lines blur over the dinner table.
The first KFC restaurant opened in Beijing on November 12, 1987, in the midst of sweeping economic reforms within the country. In the months leading up to the historic opening, many doubted that a distinct and visible American enterprise like KFC could make a profit in the Chinese market or that a western company could survive in such a climate. Although Mao era China had fallen behind the world economically, the China of 1987 was a brave new fiscal world, awash with restructuring and ripe for western businesses. Beginning in the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping, heir apparent to Mao, instituted the so-called era of “reform and opening” (gaige kaifang), that would completely reinvent the Chinese economic system. Essentially involving “an abandonment of Mao Zedong’s revolutionary idealism and an elevation of economic development in order to build a modern, market?oriented nation,” gaige kaifang radically altered the Chinese economy and restructured Chinese society and culture. The message was clear: This was a new China, whose future “was in enterprise and ingenuity.” Certainly, these reforms would make China safe for KFC.
KFC’s entry into China was unprecedented, as was the company’s eventual success. The first KFC in China, a short walking distance from Tiananmen Square, the political heart of traditional and Communist China “opened to the warmest embrace imaginable by the citizens of Beijing.” Unlike any other business in China, Beijing’s first KFC was also unlike any KFC found in the US: “occupying three stories and 12,000 square feet, [the restaurant] had a seating capacity of 500, and a staff of more than 150.” This enterprise was American business with Chinese characteristics. For the Chinese, KFC was novelty and social curiosity, a permanent exhibition on capitalism served with a side of fries. The Western-style food, however, was only one among a myriad of temptations: customers came from miles around to enjoy a new, American way of eating, heralded by a smiling bearded mascot, speedy counter employees, and spotless bathrooms. This new business model was the epitome of everything Deng Xiaoping had promised, foreign innovation and a new prosperity. For China, KFC was the definition of modern.
In its early days, KFC in China was not simply “fast food,” but rather an “exciting, unique, and brand-new experience never before encountered…like taking a tour of American, with all its connotations: political, cultural, time, and space – real or imaginary.” The “idea of KFC” was so distinctive, that many customers at the Beijing flagship restaurant “spent hours talking to each other and gazing out the huge glass window that overlooks a busy commercial street—thereby demonstrating their sophistication to the people who passed by.” One important aspect of this perception of KFC in China is the meaning of fast food. The emergence of KFC by no means marked the beginnings of fast food in China. To the Chinese, fast food or kuaican, is synonymous with hefan, cheap meals found along every street in major Chinese cities, served out of Styrofoam containers and plastic bags. Judged by this standard, KFC is hardly considered fast food.
The act of sitting down for a meal in a restaurant is seen as a luxury, one “they treat as a formal event, and consequently spend as much time as possible over their food.” For the youth of China, for whom cool is modernity and westernization, eating at chain restaurants like KFC and McDonalds is “an integral part of their new lifestyle, a way for them to participate in the transnational cultural system.” The combination of luxury and curiosity has done wonders for KFC and its parent company, Yum. Since its first store in Beijing, to 2010, KFC has expanded to more than 3700 outlets. Moreover, KFC controls as much as 40 percent of the Chinese market share, while McDonalds, far and away the most popular fast food restaurant in America, controls only 16 percent. KFC’s Chinese restaurants represent more than a quarter of yearly profits for the entire Yum brand. Within the next five years, it is estimated that more than half of Yum’s global revenue and profit margin will depend on its Chinese outlets. Yum’s Chinese operations are so successful that the brand recently sold off Long John Silver’s and A&W in order to focus attention on expanding in the Chinese market.
Ironically, KFC’s success in the Chinese market is due in large part to the company’s dramatic shift away from the Colonel’s strict recipe policies. One of the secrets to KFC’s success in China is the brand’s willingness to adapt in menu and attitude. While the McDonalds in China tend to sell mostly American-style burgers, KFC’s menu features native Chinese dishes that U.S. patrons would not recognize. Chinese KFC restaurants offer a bevy of traditional dishes alongside familiar western menu items, such as egg tarts and congee, rice porridge available with pork, pickles, mushrooms, and preserved egg. Additionally, KFC’s menu includes specialty items themed to China, such as “the Dragon Twister, a chicken wrap in a Peking duck-type sauce” and an item not unlike the Crunch Wrap Supreme found in American Taco Bells. This odd sandwich, whose name loosely translates to “Tender Beef Pentagon,” is a folded tortilla containing Sichuan-style seasoned beef. A recent addition to the spate of KFC’s Chinese odd foreign dishes is the so-called “Taste of Ireland,” a roasted chicken flavored with Irish cream liqueur. KFC’s Chinese strategy has been so successful that the brand has spawned numerous imposters in the Middle Kingdom. Restaurants such as Dicos andMai De Si offer up KFC-inspired meals, from fried chicken topped rice dishes to the much-coveted jirou hanbaobao, a “chicken meat hamburger,” the Chinese equivalent of a chicken sandwich.
Reshaping the economy from the ground up and allowing for an influx of Western business and money, Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms turned the tide for China. The reforms made a market hungry for Western influence accessible to perhaps the most American of industries: the fast food restaurant. Although no stranger to fast food, China embraced KFC as a symbol of quality and well-packaged modernity, a shining beacon of American business in the heart of the East. KFC embraced China, adjusting the menu to local tastes while competitors, who had met with greater success elsewhere, attempted to peddle their well-worn wares to a disinterested public. The results were an economic boom for KFC; a once small time company confined in America became an unparalleled international force. Equal parts cash cow and cultural curiosity, KFC in China represents the fruition of successful economic reform and the realization of globalization.
Hayden Drewery is a senior International Studies major at the University of North Florida. His interest in Chinese history and language led him to take a semester abroad at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an, China. While in Xi’an, he studied Mandarin, explored ancient monuments, and was tricked into eating sheep’s blood, among other foreign delicacies.
Hayden Drewery, “West Meets East: KFC and Its Success in China,” Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History 1, no.2 (Summer 2011).