Before they test a chicken recipe or shoot a television commercial, KFC executives now can get advice from a national panel of experts who share a common bond -- motherhood.
The 13-member panel, the first of its kind for the chain, was treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to Louisville last week for its initial meeting. It includes an author from California, a manager at a KFC restaurant in Florida and a Louisvillian with twins who runs her own event-planning company.
KFC, a subsidiary of Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc., has organized polls and focus groups in the past, but company spokeswoman Laurie Schalow said there has never been a formal customer advisory board from the same demographic.
The group, called the KFC Moms Matter! Advisory Board, isn't unique. McDonald's Corp. launched a Global Moms Panel in May that includes customers from Germany, Argentina, England and the United States.
The groups have been formed amid growing concern that fast-food restaurants are contributing to obesity, especially in children. KFC, for example, was sued in June by a retired doctor from Washington, D.C., over its use of partially hydrogenated oil in its fried chicken and other items.
Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, said the mom-based panels have a "warm and fuzzy" sound but reflect the more serious challenge of marketing fast food to families and children.
"They're caught in a horrible dilemma," Nestle said of companies such as KFC. "If kids are going to be healthier, they need to eat fewer of these products."
On a recent afternoon at a KFC restaurant in Louisville, Yunjoo Cho, 25, sat down to dinner with her husband, Choong Yang, and the couple's 8-month-old son. Cho said the family eats at KFC about once a month, but is concerned about the level of sodium in some chicken items.
Shannon Perry-Steiner, who took her 7-year-old daughter to the store's drive-through, said she typically visits other fast-food restaurants such as Wendy's because of concerns that KFC doesn't offer as many healthy menu items.
But Perry-Steiner, who manages a coffee shop, was pleasantly surprised to find a KFC kid's meal with a granola bar and fruit juice. And she said the moms' panel seemed like a good idea.
"I know they're trying to be more health-conscious," Perry-Steiner said. "With the fried chicken and everything, it's not the healthiest."
The moms' panel at KFC has been in the works for about eight months, and Schalow said it was not linked to the McDonald's initiative. Nutrition is one of the topics that the group will address, she said, but it also will try out promotions and launch an online newsletter and chat room with weekly drawings and tips on how to reduce stress.
The only Kentuckian on the panel is Sharon Bell, a Louisville native who holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from Eastern Kentucky University.
Bell , 41, said the group's members come from diverse backgrounds but share a commitment to spending quality time with their children and having a "well-rounded household." Bell also said she would like to see more healthy menu items at KFC to supplement traditional favorites.
Julienne Smith, another panel member, is a former television news anchor and the author of "Food For Talk," a book that promotes meaningful family discussions around the dinner table.
Smith said studies show children who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, and tend to have better grades in school. A single mother of three from Yorba Linda, Calif., Smith said KFC seems to have a genuine interest in promoting family dinners, in part because the company's food is a good option for mothers with hectic lifestyles.
Members of the group will meet twice a year in person and play host to monthly KFC-sponsored dinners in their hometowns. Schalow predicted that the planned Web campaign might draw hundreds of thousands of mothers next year, and she said the advisory-panel concept could eventually be used at Pizza Hut, also owned by Yum.
Alan White, area manager for Ledington Foods, which owns six KFC franchises in the Louisville area, said he first heard about the Moms Matter advisory board at a company meeting a few weeks ago. Busy mothers are core customers for KFC, he said, and the panel may be able to come up with ideas for selling relatively new products such as a "laptop" kid's meal that opens like a computer, or side items that appeal to health-conscious consumers.
The moms' panel isn't the first effort by KFC to focus on nutrition issues. The company's Web site, www.kfc.com , offers a nutrition calculator that measures the number of calories and the amount of sodium in menu items.
In late 2003, the company launched TV commercials promoting Kentucky Fried Chicken as part of a healthy diet. A nonprofit group complained about the advertisements to the Federal Trade Commission. A settlement reached in mid-2004 barred KFC from describing its food as healthy without scientific proof.
The lawsuit over use of partially hydrogenated oil is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington. It is being backed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the same group that complained about the 2003 commercials.
Elizabeth Moore, a marketing professor at the University of Notre Dame, said KFC's attempt to reach everyday mothers for advice may help the company find ways to better connect with families.
"Given the concerns about food marketing to children right now, enlisting parents is a good idea," Moore said. "The companies are very serious about trying to make positive changes."