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    This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Photo by Chris Witzke

    Just off I-264 near Gardiner Lane, up Colonel Sanders Lane, down the hill from the company tennis courts, in a big gray totalitarian-dystopia-conjuring mod-chic anvil of a building, through the glossy lobby and past the all-smiles receptionist, beyond the key-card-with-high-enough-security-clearance-required doors, up an elevator, past the key-card-with-even-higher-security-clearance-required doors, down slick gray hallways embedded not with windows but plasma-screen TVs tuned to cartoon Colonel Sanderses, somewhere above or perhaps below — who knows in this maze? — the fully-stocked mock-up of a KFC restaurant where trainees learn the spices and the drive-through window opens onto a hallway facing the company gym, around the corner, through a set of metallic doors: This is where that luminous red and white menu at every KFC goes from dream to dish. This is the KFC test kitchen.

    Senior manager of food innovation Jenny Nixon knows this route well after 12 years with the company. The 37-year-old, wearing black dress pants with smart silver heels and a red KFC blouse, leans forward onto a table at the front of the kitchen, smiling a this-can’t-be-real-it’s-so-radiant smile. A wiry spice rack towers behind her, and down past the long table: sinks and stoves and hanging knives, tongs, spoons. Don’t let the word “test” throw you — the KFC test kitchen is a kitchen.

    Nixon, who works with two culinary-minded compatriots to carry ideas from paper to PR, came to KFC after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Louisville and working as a food technologist at a food-dye company. She’s since earned her MBA and moved into a managerial position. She says her job is mostly failure; KFC proposes upwards of a hundred new ideas per year, but only “a handful” make it through the months-long conceptualizing-to-cooking-to-tasting-to-retrying-to-test marketing-to-restaurant releasing-to-advertising process. “Some ideas last for five minutes,” she says. 

    But Nixon prefers to focus on ideas that actually become food. Most recently: Nashville hot-style chicken, currently available only in a test market — Pittsburgh. Nixon sets a black plastic tub filled with three red-sauce-dripping strips, a biscuit, and a bowl of slaw in front of me, another in front of photographer Chris Witzke. She eats at KFC five or six times a week herself. As we dig in to the yes-it’s-fast-food-but-it’s-hot-and-smoky-too goodness, Nixon says: “There are times on Saturday when the only thing I want to eat is what I had at work on Thursday, and I know I’ll just have to wait for Monday.” When I get busy sopping up sauce with my biscuit, Nixon, the mother of a seven-year-old boy, mentions a job perk: “My son loves it when I bring my work home.”

    This article originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of Louisville Magazine. 
    To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, please click here.

    Dylon Jones's picture

    About Dylon Jones

    Dylon Jones is a senior editor at Louisville Magazine.

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