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America's Largest Chicken Chain Will Expand for the First Time In 17 Years

While the Colonel was busy with international growth, the U.S. footprint kept getting smaller.

America's largest fried chicken chain has taken over the world with thousands of international locations, but its domestic presence has been on a steady decline for years. However, all that's about to change as KFC announces plans for U.S. growth for the first time in nearly two decades.

We tend to think of the company as one of the staples of American fast food, but did you know there are currently more KFC restaurants in China than there are in the United States? Estimates place KFC's China footprint at just over 6,000 units, which is about 2,000 locations more than currently operate stateside.

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In fact, KFC's global footprint overtook its national one a while ago. By 2005, its international reach had surpassed the domestic by about 2,600 stores. In 2021, that difference has ballooned to an incredible 17,000 units—according to Restaurant Business, the chain currently operates 21,000 international locations, but fewer than 4,000 domestic stores.

But KFC is looking to course correct, according to a recent statement from president Kevin Hochman. Addressing shareholders at a virtual investor day event, he announced the company expected to become "net new unit positive" by the end of 2021, with new restaurant openings overtaking projected closures for the first time in 17 years.

Positive unit growth in the U.S. is big news for KFC. The chicken experts had about 100 more store closures than openings every year since 2004. In 2017, the chain managed to reduce that rate by almost half, and nearly managed to reverse the trend in 2018. While 2020 was supposed to be their big comeback year, the pandemic-related closures foiled those plans. But now, with "the largest pipeline of new-build sites in over a decade"—including new drive-thru-focused stores—KFC is prepared to cross the threshold into unit growth.

The footprint is just one battle in a war the chain is currently waging against Chick-fil-A, its top U.S. competitor. While KFC still has about 1,400 more stores than the much-smaller Chick-fil-A, it lost its sales edge to the competitor in 2013. Chick-fil-A overtook the Colonel again in 2018, with store performances doubling those of KFC. Even Popeyes has been giving the chain a run for its money, and as of 2021 claims an almost equal market share.

All three chains have benefitted in recent years from the growing popularity of chicken sandwiches. Popeyes is generally credited with starting the trend, but fast-food restaurants across the board have benefited from it. KFC launched its own version earlier this year and has since enjoyed a surge in same-store sales.

In terms of reclaiming its U.S. industry position from Chick-fil-A, KFC still has a long road ahead. While busy expanding abroad in the 2000s, it allowed a formerly regional chain like Chick-fil-A to become, amazingly, the third-largest U.S restaurant chain by sales. Maybe the new and improved chicken sandwich, which currently accounts for 10% of all KFC sales, will help.

For more, check out Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and KFC Are the First Fast-Food Brands to Do This, and don't forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest restaurant news delivered straight to your inbox.

Owen Duff
Owen Duff is a freelance journalist based in Vermont, home of Ben & Jerry’s. Read more about Owen