Fast Food, Different Nation

I’d eaten at KFC only once in the United States. I was greeted with dirty floors, inexperienced staff and subpar food.  

Illustration Jacqueline Martinez KFC
Illustration by Jacqueline Martinez

But during a family visit to China late last year, on a ride from the train station with my cousin and uncle, I noticed three KFCs within a couple of blocks of each other in the town of Xuanhua, in the northwestern Hebei province. With a population of about 274,000, this city is a little over three times the size of Duluth. I pointed this out to my cousin, and he told me two new KFCs were built there in the past few years.  

That night, my cousin, my brother and I decided to test our luck at a local Xuanhua KFC. 

We walked into the restaurant, and I was greeted by a warm smile from the hostess. The restaurant was nearly double the size of most KFC restaurants in America, and was well staffed with a large crew. I could see my reflection on the spotless floor, and the room was packed full of people. The overall welcoming environment contrasted greatly to my KFC experience in America. 

I ordered a fried chicken leg and chicken wing with a side of mashed potatoes. My cousin ordered a Peking duck burrito, using an app on his phone to place our order. I saw many traditional Chinese foods, like rice dishes, soy milk drinks, egg tarts and fried dough sticks. The menu had all of the foods present in American KFC restaurants, but added new items akin to the local tastes and culture. 

Our food arrived within a few minutes and I was excited to dig in. A fragrant steam came from the fried chicken box, and the potatoes were covered with a dark, rich gravy. The chicken was crispy, moist and well-seasoned. I reflected on my experience with KFC in the U.S. and realized that I was having a better experience at KFC in China. 

At this point, I was wondering why KFC was so different in China and what strategies businesses use to change their restaurants. 

Muer Yang, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business Department of Operations and Supply Chain Management, says KFC employs a business strategy called localization, in which restaurants change their food and menu to cater to local Chinese tastes. KFC, the first Western fast-food company to move into China, tries to appear as a Chinese brand rather than a Western brand. 

“I would say KFC was an important restaurant and a famous one in China,” Yang said. 

Many traditional Chinese comfort foods were incorporated into the menu and the taste of the food was adjusted to suit the palates of Xuanhua residents, Yang said. 

“I think KFC nowadays in China is very different from KFC in (the) 2000s when I was still in China,” Yang said. “Now if I look at the menu only and cover the name of KFC in China, I would think it is a menu from a local Chinese restaurant rather than an American restaurant.” 

Food is a central part of society and adapting to regional cultures is essential to winning over customers. The most important part of any Chinese holiday is the food. During holidays like Valentine’s Day and Christmas, KFC is a popular option.  

“I was actually a little bit surprised that the KFC in the U.S. was a very low-end restaurant, which was quite different from my impression in China,” Yang said. 

During Chinese New Year, my grandparents would video call me and show me the food they prepared. Every time I spoke with my grandpa over the phone, he told me about all the food he would have ready for me when I returned to China. 

I clung to the term localization, which helped me understand why KFC was changing and growing in China while KFC in the United States was, well, still KFC. A KFC spread in China actually might be something my grandpa would have ready to serve me on my next visit to Xuanhua.