KFC’s Nashville hot chicken is a reddish-hued, cayenne-and-paprika-encrusted take on the dish invented at the city’s Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, which may be the only plywood-walled strip mall joint to win a James Beard award. Even the “medium” spiced chicken at Prince’s will make you sweat. “We obviously couldn’t do that,” says Kevin Hochman, KFC’s chief marketing officer. “We picked a spice level that would attract the most people.”
Hot chicken made its debut in January with a TV commercial in which Colonel Sanders, played by Norm Macdonald, stood in front of a painting of the Nashville skyline and talked up the city’s “legendary” fried food. In another ad, he showed slides from a trip to the city, with pictures of the Nashville airport (not the real one) and a classic diner (that doesn’t exist). The faux-vintage spots fit with KFC’s attempt to reposition itself as an old-fashioned restaurant—last year, it started using the Colonel as a mascot for the first time in 20 years and returned to serving chicken in its original red-and-white-striped buckets—that serves up bona fide regional specialties. “There’s this push toward authenticity and eating food with ingredients you can pronounce,” says Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group. “It gives the perception that the food is healthier. ‘Healthy’ doesn’t mean low-calorie or low-fat anymore; it means ‘real.’ ” Which explains why McDonald’s added a lobster roll to menus in New England last summer—and why Wendy’s is offering a North Pacific cod sandwich from Portland to Portland.
KFC usually releases new menu items in the spring when the weather is better, but it’s hoping hot chicken becomes a Buffalo wings alternative. The dish got its own pregame Super Bowl ad and a food truck tour of eight cities in the U.S. named Nashville. Hochman won’t share sales figures—but the city ordering the most hot chicken? That’d be the one in Tennessee.