On Tuesday, August 27, people from around metro Atlanta descended upon a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) in Smyrna, Georgia hoping to be the first in the nation to try the fast food chain’s vegan “chicken” wings and nuggets.
By noon, a logjam of cars trying to enter the drive-thru stretched back to Windy Ridge Road nearly a block away. People were standing in line, curling into a circle in the parking lot at the Cobb County KFC. This included everyone from nearby office workers and suburban housewives to Atlanta-based producer and musician Jermaine Dupri, who was one of the first in line at the restaurant on Cobb Parkway before the doors opened at 10:30 a.m.
California-based vegan food manufacturer Beyond Meat and KFC announced earlier in the week they were joining forces to test a new “plant-based chicken” product together. This news alone garnered national attention. That the faux fried chicken taste test was only one day and at one location in the country — a lone KFC just north of Atlanta — and mixed with major media hype from the recent viral fried chicken sandwich moment, the event was enough to cause serious fast food FOMO on Tuesday.
According to KFC chief communications officer Staci Rawls, the Cumberland-area KFC was chosen for several reasons: its reasonably close proximity to the city of Atlanta, a recent remodeling job, and the franchise owners’ willingness to “lean in” on marketing expenses, including their decision to rent a large billboard next to the building promoting the event. Due to its sizable parking lot and the four lane highway beyond, this KFC could also handle a crowd.
Tuesday’s crowd included Aaliyah and Kyle Mooney, who traveled from Stone Mountain, Georgia, 27 miles east of the KFC and nearly an hour in Atlanta traffic. The Mooneys identify themselves as “vegan-ish” and both claim to be passionate supporters of “cruelty-free” dining options. They say they stopped eating animal protein for health, environmental, and ethical reasons.
The couple sampled both the nuggets and boneless wings. Aaliyah found the breading to be “fantastic” and the texture “on-point.” She tells Eater Atlanta she would order the wings and nuggets again if KFC put them on the menu.
Kyle feels these imitation chicken nuggets and wings could pass for the real thing, “If you were going to give it to someone who was not vegan or vegetarian, you could definitely fool them with that, 100 percent.”
Danielle Liebowitz, a 19-year-old vegetarian who waited in line for two hours on Tuesday, seemed less enthusiastic about her 12-piece Nashville hot boneless wings and breaded nuggets. She was one of the last people to sample the KFC-Beyond Meat imitation chicken collaboration before the restaurant ran out at 3 p.m.
“It was a hell of a lot better than Beyond Meat’s last attempt at chicken, that’s for sure. It rivaled other veggie chicken nuggets I’ve had...only real difference was the breading and that this was fried rather than baked or microwaved in my kitchen,” Liebowitz states.
She also finds the chicken less exciting than Beyond Meat’s imitation beef burger.
“Did I actually miss the taste of ‘chicken’? Not at all. The nugget was just a way to eat a ton of ranch, ketchup, and barbecue sauce. Overall, this was just sort of whatever.”
An Eater reader who attended Tuesday’s taste test wrote in to say that while KFC’s vegan chicken is “pretty good” on its own, it didn’t “capture the original KFC spice flavors” she remembers eating as a child.
“I tried some plain, some with buffalo sauce, and some with honey bbq sauce. I prefer the Buffalo, then BBQ, then plain,” she writes. “I enjoy it with the sides of biscuits, potatoes (no gravy since it’s not veg), and coleslaw. It’s nice that it’ll give us [vegan/vegetarians] an option on the road or when time is an issue and we need fast food.”
KFC put out a statement with Beyond Meat claiming the imitation fried chicken served on Tuesday didn’t contain “animal-based ingredients.” However, when questioned about how it was prepared in the kitchen, a spokesperson for KFC says “a dedicated fryer with fresh oil was used” and the kitchen is a shared kitchen. They recognize this cross-contamination in the shared kitchen may not be acceptable to certain vegetarians or vegans, despite using a dedicated fryer.
“Our target customers for this product are ‘flexitarians’ looking to incorporate plant-based choices into their diets,” the KFC spokesman tells Eater.
When asked about the nutritional and caloric values of the vegan nuggets and wings, KFC declined to provide those numbers, only saying that “each Beyond fried chicken nugget is lower in calories, fat, and sodium than a comparable serving of KFC Extra Crispy Tenders [260 calories, 14g fat, 610mg sodium] or Popcorn Chicken [290 calories, 19g fat, 870mg sodium].”
Like KFC’s buckets of fried chicken, these manufactured “meat” nuggets and wings are also heavily breaded and deep-fried in oil. KFC and Beyond Meat plan to take the feedback from Tuesday’s taste test and play around with the recipe and possibly conduct more market research before deciding whether to add the vegan fried chicken options to the menu nationally.
Disclosure: The author, Mike Jordan, owns a small number of shares in Beyond Meat.