Several traditional brands in quick service are feeling the need to experiment with fast-casual elements, just as KFC did when it launched its fast-casual spinoff, called KFC Eleven.  Besides KFC, industry experts say the limited-service chicken segment as a whole is taking on a more premium image in terms of product, service, and environment, according to a recent article in QSR magazine.

KFC Eleven debuted in August in KFC’s home market of Louisville, Kentucky and serves such menu items as California Club Chicken Sandwiches, and Southwestern Baja Rice Bowls, made fresh to order and served in a sleek interior featuring wood detailing, art on the walls, and WiFi.

El Pollo Loco shies away from calling itself a fast-casual chain, although it offers premium, fire-grilled, citrus marinated chicken menu items in an upsacle environment.  “We operate in a place called QSR-plus,” Ed Valle, chief marketing officer for the 400-unit El Pollo Loco, said.  “QSR-plus is a place where the need for distinctive, authentic food meets the need for speed.  And the plus means better service, better food, and better environment.”

Zach McLeroy, CEO of the Atlanta-based chicken concept Zaxby’s, said it is the freshness and authenticity of the ingredients and menu items that give the chain its upscale edge.  “Our food is just premium,” he said.  “It’s cooked to order, it’s fresh, unlike what anybody else is doing. Everybody else is cooking out of the bag or cooking in advance.   Our idea was to make it fresh for our guests, and I think it’s what separates us from everyone else in the industry,” McLeroy said.

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen launched a major rebranding effort five years ago, going back to its Louisiana roots, which Global Brand Officer Dick Lynch says inherently made the chain more premium.    “When you think of the great Louisiana Cajun and Creole  Food, it is by its nature not expensive but it’s certainly premium because it’s an interesting regional American cuisine,” he said.

Many industry experts said that it is the product side of the equation in particular, thanks to consumers’ increasingly sophisticated palates and thirst for food that is high quality and unique, that lies at the heart of the push for premium chicken.  “The consumers are looking for a better product now. They’re more educated; they’re more mobile than they used to be,” says Heather Gardea, vice president of research and development at El Pollo Loco.

Innovation in the premium chicken segment has also centered on wraps and salads, said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the foodservice research firm Technomic. With a growing minority of limited-service customers looking for healthier options in all segments of the industry, nutritious offerings, whether in the form of grilled chicken, salads, or other better-for-you menu items, play a role in the upscaling that is underway in the chicken segment, Tristano said.

Zaxby’s has capitalized on the desire for healthy products with the rebranding of its salad lineup, which it gave the name “Zalads” several years ago.  “Literally overnight, we went from selling about 30 a day per store to over 130, and I think that number tops over 200 in some of our outlets today,” says COO Robert Baxley.