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Why Britain’s love for KFC is more than skin deep

Steven 'The Colonel' Mackenzie went behind the scenes to find out what KFC means to its community

Britain is a fast-food nation and chicken and chips is our choice chomp, whether a cheeky Nando’s or finger-lickin’ KFC.

Recently, KFC invited customers into hundreds of its outlets to see how their meals were made. The company has proved itself a marketing maestro, whether running ad campaigns mocking their many imitators or handling what quickly became a national crisis after a chicken shortage caused store closures across the country.

The Open Kitchen event in March fed into the cult KFC has built around itself, with fans snapping up tickets faster than they could demolish a bucket of the good stuff.

At my local outlet in the south of Glasgow, there was predictably an emphasis on health and safety and hygiene as we were shown how to wash our hands for the duration of singing Happy Birthday, before donning gloves to bread our own chicken in a blend of flour and the 11 herb and spices of the Colonel’s Secret Recipe.

It became clear this store had a role at the heart of the community beyond simply clogging up arteries

But Niall the store manager was not reading off a script when it came to transparency and traceability, answering any and all questions as we queued to construct our own burger, squirting whatever cocktail of sauces we wanted over our Zingers. 

All KFC chicken comes from one of over 500 Red Tractor-assured farms in the UK and Ireland, which ensures a certain level of welfare standards. Niall boasts that the store sold 10,000 hot wings alone the previous week. Forgive my maths but that seems to be one smallish store working through close to 5,000 birds a week. Across the whole UK, KFC sells 14 million pieces of chicken per week – that’s around 700 million pieces a year. No two ways about it, that’s a cluck load of chicken.

The ethics of consumer consumption in the UK is the subject for a much longer article, but learning more about this store’s employees and customers highlighted that it had a role at the heart of the community beyond simply clogging up the arteries of hearts in the community.

This restaurant borders different residential areas, where tensions between ethnicities, immigrants old and new, and natives are sometimes keenly felt. Govanhill, one of the city’s most deprived areas lies to the east, one of the city’s most exclusive private schools is across the road on the posher Pollokshields side.

This KFC is one of the few places where people of all demographics (except those who’d never be seen dead in a 24-hour drive-thru) share the same space; large families led by parents juggling jobs, shift workers needing a quick chick fix at all hours of the day.

Other customers are older and isolated, counter staff aware this may be the only human contact these people have that day or week. One man pops in each morning at 10.30 for a two-piece meal (beans instead of fries). He cares for a sick relative and this is part of his routine after a long night or ahead of another long day. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a typical picture in towns and cities across the country.

For the staff, at least the ones on the rota today, this isn’t just a part-time, low wage, unwanted job but a career. Niall says he left school with no useful qualifications but the company supported him through a university degree. As we finish off our handmade meals there’s a certificate ceremony for Mark, one of the fryers who came in at 5am to make sure the kitchen was up to scratch for the 10 random punters who’d be charging through. Everyone seems touched. We all applaud.

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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