Meghan Farren has taken on a number of big challenges in her time at KFC, and is now helping thousands of younger people start their careers
It’s not that long since the first question that sprang to mind for many people when it came to KFC was whether it actually sold real chicken.
Urban legends over the provenance of its hero product have hung over the fast food giant since it changed its name from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC in the early 1990s.
And a standout conspiracy theory centred on its supposed use of “mutant” birds (let’s call them frankenchickens), with multiple wings and legs or, worse still, no beaks, feathers or feet – all of which was designed to help the evil corporation maximise profits.
The US government, it was claimed, would not permit KFC to use the word ‘chicken’ due to these sourcing practices. And this rumour, in one way or another, continued well into the 21st century.
So much so that when KFC UK & Ireland general manager Meghan Farren first joined the fast food chain in 2011 as innovation director, “it was my biggest challenge”.
That’s why Farren, 43, after being promoted to the role of KFC’s UK & Ireland marketing director, made the bold move to “talk about our chicken” in its marketing for the first time.
“There was this fear customers didn’t want to know what they were eating”
“There had always been this rule that we never showed a chicken in our marketing, there was this fear customers didn’t want to know what they were eating,” she says. “So we put a chicken on the TV, it created a crazy, big stir and instead, what we started to see was that customers wanted to know how that chicken had been raised.”
Born in Cincinnati and raised in New Jersey, Farren says her mind was initially “boggled” by “just how much Britons love animals”. But now “an adopted Brit”, and “almost a citizen”, with a British husband and two children, she stresses she soon caught on.
And once KFC got across the message it was selling real chicken, it could then start making improvements to how it sourced its key ingredient, she adds.
Indeed, so engaged was KFC with groups which had traditionally opposed it, that its addition of a vegan chicken option to its menu won it a Peta Vegan Food Award in 2020.
“This is why a group like Peta is a partner of ours,” she says, referencing that award win. “We’ve engaged all the stakeholders, we’ve talked to everyone,” Farren adds, though Peta – as a charity that promotes vegan lifestyles – stresses it would not endorse KFC’s chicken offering.
But KFC’s openness does help explain why the chain, unlike most major supermarkets, signed up in 2019 to the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) – which outlaws those fast-growing frankenchickens.
Name: Meghan Farren
Potted CV: Graduate at JP Morgan, 2002, consulting with Marakon Associates, 2004. Sales & marketing with Gü, 2008. Joined KFC in 2011, becoming CMO in 2015. Asda chief customer officer from 2021. Rejoined KFC in October 2022
Family: Husband Ben (the founder of fashion brand Spoke London), daughters Elodie (10) and Cassia (7), plus Labradoodle Fauci (3)
Best decision you made: Moving to London for (future) husband Ben, and returning to KFC
Interests: Cooking , reading, crosswords, all sports (but especially running, football, skiing), watching Tottenham
Business mantra: Aim for excellence and progress, not perfection. And choose a job doing something you love and the rest will follow
Favourite album: Vampire Weekend, their eponymous debut
Favourite food: Fried chicken!
KFC had initially looked at taking its entire supply chain free-range during early discussions. But Farren had to concede “we couldn’t get the supply we wanted [while] the cost would be so prohibitive that the consumer would not be able to afford us”.
The BCC, therefore, represented a more achievable goal, given KFC accounts for around 4% of British chicken, though Farren – who stepped away from KFC to work at Asda as its chief customer officer between October 2021 and 2022 – concedes getting the mults to follow suit would be a tougher ask due to the cost implications of making such a shift at scale.
“We’re not perfect but we’re transparent,” she says. “At this point we’ve made a lot of progress, but now the supply chain is under pressure at every single point, as is the customer, so making progress in this space requires long-term investment, and it’s really hard.”
Tackling youth unemployment
Another area where Farren’s progressive attitude shines through has been her championing of KFC’s Hatch youth employment programme. “[The UK has] huge unemployment within the 16 to 24 age group, with more than 600,000 in this bracket out of work,” she notes. “At the same time, businesses like ours struggle to find talent and have to deal with high staff turnover.”
So when Farren returned to KFC last autumn as its new GM – leaving an enjoyable time at a revitalised Asda for “an opportunity I couldn’t pass up” – she set about accelerating the rollout of Hatch.
KFC has partnered with charity UK Youth on the scheme, which prepares young people for working life and offers apprenticeships and work experience within the KFC business. “It offers the types of skills that for many people are second nature, basic things like how to write a CV, how you interview, teamwork and showing up to work on time,” she says.
The 16 to 24 demographic represents about 65% of KFC’s workforce – with many staff coming from disadvantaged backgrounds – so it was a business-critical challenge for the fast food giant, Farren says.
And a pilot has been so successful, a “proud” Farren says KFC is now looking to widen Hatch out across the 1,050-strong UK&I estate next year and has convinced KFC parent Yum Brands to roll it out across the globe.
Not everything has gone swimmingly for Farren in her time at KFC, however. Its well-documented chicken shortages of 2018 – caused by a disastrous transition to DHL as its logistics partner – plus the impact of the pandemic, were particularly challenging periods.
Thankfully, those teething troubles have been ironed out, while the pandemic also helped KFC develop its digital offering. On Farren’s watch, it has also tackled nutrition concerns, with a chicken fillet burger now containing fewer than 500 calories, calorie counts listed on menus, and no soft drinks for sale with sugar.
KFC is now close to being a £2bn business in the UK, with plans for an additional 500 sites in the next 10 years, building on the 200 opened since 2018, and KFC is due to open its first carbon neutral branch next year.
But its growth is inexorably tied to Hatch: KFC wants a third of its new hires by 2030 to be young people who have faced barriers to employment.
“I’ve always wanted to run a business and I feel so strongly about making an impact,” she adds. “As my husband says, chicken for life.”