COSTA MESA Calif. El Pollo Loco is taking another swing at KFC’s grilled product in ads and viral videos following last week’s chicken fight in Southern California, the home to many of the nation's grilled chicken concepts.
KFC officials said Monday the chain gave away more than 4 million pieces of free grilled chicken last week during a national promotion for the chain’s new grilled product . Not to be outdone, Costa Mesa, Calif.-based El Pollo Loco — which has long established its brand as a healthful grilled alternative to fried chicken — also offered customers free samples last week, and in commercials urged chicken tasters to call a toll-free phone number to vote for their favorite .
This week, however, El Pollo Loco officials posted videos featuring some “suspicious voicemails” from callers claiming to be from Southern California — though caller I.D. revealed that the phone numbers appeared to be from KFC parent Yum! Brands Inc.'s headquarters in Louisville, Ky.
Not surprisingly, the “anonymous” callers said they preferred KFC’s grilled chicken.
One caller described KFC's grilled chicken as “as good as the O.R.,” which El Pollo Loco explains is “KFC-speak for ‘Original Recipe.’”
“What’s with the covert operation, KFC?” asked Steve Carley, El Pollo Loco's chief executive, who appears in television ads this week challenging KFC to a taste test to “prove once and for all that chicken cooked over an open flame is the only way to enjoy grilled chicken.
“We’re champing at the bit to show them what true flame-grilled chicken tastes like and are willing to take them on anytime, anywhere,” Carley said. “Their turf or our coop.”
KFC spokeswoman Laurie Schalow responded Monday by saying the “truest taste challenge is the one that takes place every day in 5,200 KFC restaurants coast-to-coast. In that challenge, it is the paying customer who decides which product they prefer.”
Regarding the anonymous calls from KFC headquarters, Schalow said the company is “grilling our employees to see if any have been doing any undercover dialing.”
She added that “our larger focus is on continuing the momentum of Kentucky Grilled Chicken, which has become the biggest product launch in KFC history.”
KFC operates or franchises 325 locations in Southern California, a region that is already crowded with grilled chicken options, including chains such as the 418-unit El Pollo Loco as well as Pollo Campero, Charo Chicken, and hundreds of mom-and-pop variations featuring grilled birds.
El Pollo Loco’s ad campaign has focused on the fact that KFC's grilled chicken is cooked in ovens on grill racks, while most El Pollo Loco units cook their chicken on an open grill.
Outside of California, however, El Pollo Loco is moving to a system in which the chicken is pre-cooked in a convection oven before being finished on the open grill, though officials said only about 50 stores nationally currently use the new system.