For KFC’s Jo Tivers, working in product development was always in her blood. “I have a granddad who was an inventor, so I like to think I inherited his creative genes and use them to create food instead,” head of the fast food chain’s UK & Ireland NPD team tells Food Spark.

Her hunger for innovation could well be innate, but Tivers believes her initial love of food stems from family holidays to Italy when she was a kid. It was here that she first experienced the joy of fresh ingredients, such as tomatoes and ciabattas, and how the most inventive dishes could be created using the simplest produce.

After taking a professional cooking course at school, food has been an integral part of Tivers’ life ever since, with an impressive CV including development roles at Sainsbury’s and the Brakes Group. Now, following a short spell at Waitrose, Tivers is on her second stint within KFC’s NPD team which is riding high from the stellar sales of its Original Recipe Vegan Burger during Veganuary.

“I think the reason people love it so much is because it’s so close to the original KFC. No one feels like they’re missing out on the flavour because they are still able to have it in vegan form,” Tivers says.

Here, Tivers chats about KFC’s plans to expand its plant-based menu, how her team come up with new product ideas and why she has a “crazy obsession” to do something with the Original Recipe chicken skin.

Working in NPD at KFC is my dream job and I love heading up the team. I previously worked for KFC as a product development manager in its CEE team but left to join a big supermarket chain for a year. I really missed KFC though because it has such a unique culture. I’m a big fan of working with people and coaching them, so that plus food is literally perfect for me.

The recent launch of our Vegan Burger was probably my proudest moment in terms of product development. It was just so ground-breaking, and I don’t think anyone ever imagined how successful it would be. We sold over a million of the burgers in January, which was calculated as being approximately three a second. It’s been mind-blowing. However, what made me extra proud over and above the sales was the incredibly positive reviews we had as well. You only have to go on YouTube or read newspaper reviews to see how much people seem to like it.

More vegan products are definitely in the pipeline, but we need to think about how we can go bigger and better. We are currently building a strategy around that, with a focus on how we attract new customers with new forms of vegan food. We’re seeing so many influencers jumping on this trend now and famous chefs are creating dishes which are just as delicious as those with meat in. When the plant-based trend first kicked off it felt like more of a compromise - but not anymore. Having said that, KFC as a brand is all about fried chicken and our focus will never stray from that - we just want to allow as many people as possible to enjoy the Original Recipe.

It was very important that the product was suitable for vegans and not just flexitarians. We have a saying in KFC about ‘doing things the right way’. Veganism might not necessarily be where the research shows the real growth is - flexitarian is the biggest element of the industry - but we wanted to be really disciplined and thorough with our vegan offer. We weren’t first to market but we spent a lot of time getting it right in terms of recipe development, how we trained our teams and how we segregated it in our restaurants. This meant we weren’t excluding anyone from coming into KFC and enjoying a product if they wanted to.

KFC’s approach to NPD and innovation is all about the team, and we have the most creative and foodie team in the industry. We have a lot of product development and technologists who live and breathe food, and they are always so positive and creative. It’s also about having the space to be creative. We were on a food safari last week in London, where we spent time brainstorming and tasting foods, and I think that makes the difference when coming up with products which are truly distinctive and going to be successful.

Our inspiration comes from a team who are naturally curious about food. This means people are reading and seeing the right things because it’s of genuine interest to them. I also think it’s important to get out as much as possible. On the safari we were going to places like Bao which aren’t necessarily close to the kind of innovation we normally do, but it does provide us with a much broader scope of what trends are in the market at the moment. We can then apply some of those elements into the KFC menu.

To make a dish successful you need to understand the consumer. For example, if the customer is looking for a light lunch, they need something that’s portable, appetising and doesn’t make a mess or make them smell of garlic when they go into the office. There also needs to be a balance of flavour and texture in the dish, as well as some variety that gives a rounder flavour profile so it isn’t one dimensional. Texture is particularly important as it gives a different type of variety but also makes it very satisfying to eat. I think colour and garnish are also crucial. You eat a lot with your eyes, and being able to see something that’s visually appealing, whether through the packaging or the ingredients, is key. On a burger, for example, we make sure it has the right glaze on top, that it’s packed so you get an experience as soon as you open it, and make sure customers see some lettuce so there is some green with the brown of the bread roll.

A product I think deserving of more recognition is our humble hot wings. It’s one of those items I grew up with - my family are all big KFC eaters - and the product is so perfect because of the amazing spice which cuts through, in addition to its incredible crunchy texture. I’m a big advocate of texture and believe it’s often overlooked by product developers because they are unsurprisingly focused on flavour and looks. The hot wings are an example of where you get all three elements right, which means the product goes from being ordinary to exceptional.

I have a slightly crazy obsession with anything pickled or fermented. I love ingredients that cut through fried chicken and are able to emphasise the flavours, especially the Original KFC recipe, and make it even better.

During my manufacturing days, launching products without having first run factory trials was a key learning for me. I’m now rigorous about making sure our manufacturers do factory trials and that we see samples. The thing with NPD is you need to be both disciplined with process but also very creative. It’s quite a unique role and you will always make some mistakes if you deviate too much from process, but you still need to have that flexibility of being very creative.

I’m a real advocate of relationship building between all the KFC teams. If we’re working on a new product, we will all discuss it across each European market as a minimum, but we will also often talk with other KFC NPD teams across the globe. I have wonderful colleagues across the world who I’ll reach out to for advice and vice versa – we also sometimes share NPD if products are relevant in other markets. It’s a strong community and very supportive.

When launching a new product to market, the worst-case scenario is we are looking at about 12 months until launch. It depends on the complexity of the product though. From my background in retail the only lead time you really have is packaging design, but with a quick service restaurant there are a lot more stages and it’s harder to turn something around quicker. In general, we do our development much more diligently and try to set up our team members for success. We also do trials in restaurants to make sure the product works before we do a full roll-out. In comparison, when you put something on the shelf you can remove it after a couple of months if you want - our products need to work and be successful from the outset.

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