LOUISVILLE — Combine Oprah Winfrey's endorsement with a chicken giveaway and what do you get?
For KFC, the result was an avalanche of attention — some positive, some negative — for its national rollout of Kentucky Grilled Chicken. The frenzy briefly overwhelmed the chain, which promised free-meal rain checks for customers who couldn't redeem their online coupons, first posted May 2, because stores ran out of the meals or stopped honoring the offer because customer traffic threatened to get out of hand.
KFC now sees the promotional roller-coaster as a blessing.
"The critical thing for us was to get people to eat the chicken, whatever it took," KFC president Roger Eaton said in an interview.
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Overall sales are up since the chain that's famous for fried chicken rolled out its long-tested grilled version April 19 in hopes of luring health-conscious customers and reviving lackluster U.S. sales. The company said it's encouraged by steady sales of the new meal since the launch, indicating that customers are coming back to have it again.
KFC, a subsidiary of Louisville-based Yum Brands Inc., won't reveal sales numbers since the grilled chicken rollout, but Eaton called the early results "transformational" for a brand that has struggled with its heritage of fried food in the United States, even while expanding rapidly overseas, especially in China.
"Clearly, we're bringing in a lot of new customers," Eaton said. "We're exciting a lot of people about the brand who haven't been excited about the brand before. And that's really helping the business grow."
The chain already plans to expand its grilled-chicken lineup.
When coupons for free grilled-chicken meals were posted on Oprah.com, the TV talk show's Web site, the resulting rush lasted days and snarled service in some stores — and traffic on nearby roads. And some customers were angered when they got a rain check instead of a meal. But the campaign was a "net positive" for KFC because its restaurants were packed and the buzz was palpable, said Larry Miller, a restaurant analyst with RBC Capital Markets.
"If you had a choice, you'd choose that and apologize to your consumers and make it up to them," he said.
Miller said grilled chicken could change KFC's future.
"If it has long legs, it's certainly going to help them open up another line of business," he said.
The rain checks KFC started offering after Winfrey promoted the meal giveaway will be mailed out in coming weeks and will include a free soft drink as a bonus. Before the giveaway was temporarily suspended, KFC had dished up 4½ million free meals, Eaton said.
The cost "outweighed all the challenges we've had by a mile," he said.
Pete Wasilevich, a KFC franchisee since 1983 in the Midwest, said grilled-chicken sales have beaten his expectations, and he thinks the product has staying power.
"This one far exceeds any product launch we've ever had from the standpoint of meeting a pent-up need and demand," said Wasilevich, who owns 10 restaurants in Wisconsin and Illinois and has a stake in 38 Ohio stores.
Wasilevich said grilled chicken is outselling Original Recipe fried chicken at some of his stores.
The grilled chicken appeals to health-conscious customers Art Maurer and his girlfriend, Rita Chippetta. The Kenosha, Wis., couple used to indulge in KFC fried chicken about twice a year.
They recently bought eight pieces of grilled chicken, then returned two days later for more.
"It's definitely about time," Maurer said of the grilled product.