KFC's "America Showman" design has rolled out to more than 40 percent of the domestic system.

KFC’s trailblazing chief operations officer, Monica Rothgery, calls it a gut check. You can’t just ask operators if something works. You have to threaten to take it away.

“A lot of times they’ll tell you what they think you want to hear,” Rothgery says from a test kitchen in the company’s Louisville, Kentucky, headquarters. “’How’s it going? Great. There’s no problems. That doesn’t help us get better if they’re not honest.”

So, Rothgery, who is the first female COO in KFC’s history, and its first LGBT C-suite employee, will ask this instead: “Do you want to go back?”

It’s a question the legacy brand has asked itself repeatedly as it’s staged one of the most compelling fast-food comebacks of the past decade. Only, this is different. The right answer is “no.”

While much of KFC’s “Re-Colonization” efforts since 2016 centered on its DNA, and looking at brand positioning through the lens of infusing life into an iconic brand, not reinventing it, the chain’s latest full-throttle effort is a departure from recent practice. Although you could argue it’s also an ode to “the way things used to be.” Either way, as Rothgery’s question brings out of operators, KFC wants to ditch the recent past in favor of honoring the “Colonel standards,” it invested 100,000 hours of training on a few years back. The goal then was to tick up the quality quotient. Rothgery’s “Scoop to Order” project ratchets it to another level.

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When her promotion was announced in May— Rothgery served as chief restaurant productivity officer since August 2018 and was KFC’s Thailand operations and people leader before that, growing the brand from 350 to 700 units—she immediately became the closer for one of KFC’s biggest culture changes in recent memory. Perhaps the largest since the roots-driven “Re-Colonization” plan unrolled in 2016 and brought the Colonel impersonators to life.

“Scoop to Order” is something few fast-food brands at this scale are attempting in today’s convenience and automation-frenzied world: It’s adding steps to the make-line during order completion. In the past, KFC employees grabbed items and arranged, putting a guests’ order into a recognizable, paper box. This notably included taking sides pre-prepacked earlier in the day off a warming station, already in small containers, and loading them in.

With “Scoop to Order,” live since April, workers, as the name illustrates, literally scoop each side for each individual order. It’s akin, in some ways, to the Chipotle-ma Mac & Cheese de-famous assembly line of open ingredient preparation. Only in KFC’s case, it’s happening in the back of the house in warming trays. A key, visual change: Instead of a box, KFC now serves up meals in open paper containers on a tray with a wood-themed design.

Trays instead of paper boxes. All to showcase better quality and a more curated customer experience.

The reason for this is straight-lined, Rothgery says. “The changes come from a focus on improving guest experience,” she says.

The initiative was in development “for quite a while” before Rothgery assumed the reins, but she brought it home. And as Rothgery noted before, operators, understandably, recognized the move for what it was—a disruptive force they needed to adapt to. “This is so much behavior change and mindset change,” she says. “Change management is always the biggest hurdle. But once people believe and they can see the benefits then [I ask] do you want to go back?”

From Baltimore to California to Texas, Rothgery says, the answer has always been no.

My-Oahn Flowers, the general manager, or RGM (restaurant general manager) as KFC calls them, of the brand’s flagship Louisville store—one of only four in its 4,050-unit U.S. fleet—says “Scoop to Order” actually saved labor and improved productivity, despite what outside observers might think.

The reason being it took a preparation job that, admittedly, few relished, and reimagined it as something more valuable. Previously, an employee would show up early and prep those countless sides, methodically filling up containers. It was pain staking and unsatisfying work, and it wasn’t guest facing or dynamic. Also, KFC couldn’t portion control its product like it can now.

“It’s great,” Flowers says of the change. “It’s a hotter product. It’s more fresh.” She guessed it takes “5 and half seconds” to scoop mashed potatoes.

Rothgery echoes Flowers’ point. “The pride has been worth it,” she says. “The operators are super proud of this product.”

Having an employee assist their co-workers during busy times, serving meals, instead of standing in the walk-in scooping coleslaw each morning, boosted morale, Rothgery says. “It’s more fun at peak,” she says. “If you’re part of it as opposed to being in the freezer—they like the team essence of it.”

The move didn’t alter staffing levels. It also didn’t sag speed of service to any significant level, Rothgery says. As you would imagine, it lowers early but then picks up in efficiency over time. “They get better,” she says. “We’re seeing they actually get back to where they were before, or improve even.”

Additionally, “Scoop to Order” opened the product innovation window for KFC. On August 26, the chain plans to launch Mac & Cheese Bowls—its first addition to the $5 Fill Up Line in about a year—nationwide. The new setup naturally flows into this kind of creation, especially in regards to customization.

For instance, if a customer really wanted to put mac and cheese on a sandwich, this “Scoop to Order” process allows it. KFC can tweak SKUs and rethink menu ideation without some of the bottleneck concerns and limitations it had previously, when sides were prepacked in containers and ready for deployment as is.

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