Aug. 17, 2010— -- For nearly 60 years the Colonel's original recipe has kept customers coming back to KFC for the finger lickin' treat, but the brand is in trouble.
Sales have dropped in the year since KFC began its grilled chicken ad campaign and some franchise owners are now suing KFC's parent company, Yum Brands, to regain control of KFC's advertising strategy.
KFC's problems began in early 2009 with the introduction of grilled chicken to the restaurant menu. A new, aggressive ad campaign with the slogan "Unthink KFC" hit the airwaves, touting the health-conscious alternative to its famous fried chicken.
To See Photos of Some of the Most Outrageous Meals, Click Here.
The company then partnered with "The Oprah Winfrey Show," with the media titan offering viewers a free meal -- two pieces of grilled chicken, two sides and a biscuit. All they needed to do was download a coupon within two days of the announcement.
The response was overwhelming: Thousands of people showed up with their coupons at restaurants around the country. Some locations ran out of food.
KFC was forced to shut down the promotion and company president Roger Eaton issued an apology to customers. Franchises had to pay the cost of the giveaway themselves.
That's when KFC began losing. While sales at other chicken chains grew last year, KFC's fell 6 percent.
"I think it says people who care about nutrition have never been customers of KFC and probably have better places to go," said Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Franchisees are angry with Yum Brands for moving away from its Kentucky fried history, confusing customers with its focus on grilled chicken.
"We are fried chicken. We shouldn't be embarrassed about that," said William Eubanks, who owns 29 KFC franchises. "That's our heritage, that's our DNA, that's who we are."
KFC's president stands by the company's decision, saying the company is responding to what customers want.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we're about original recipe fried chicken. It's absolutely our crown jewel," Eaton told ABC News. "But consumers want a choice. They want some expansion in the menu."
Eaton said sales of grilled chicken is strong, but some restaurant owners say they're actually throwing it away because no one is buying it.
For years, KFC and other fast food restaurants have been under fire for their artery-clogging menus. Earlier this year, KFC's Double Down chicken sandwich made its debut. The sandwich offers two pieces of bacon, melted slices of cheese and a zesty sauce, packed between two fried chicken filets instead of bread slices. The Double Down packs a whopping 540 calories.
"It's deadly," Jacobson said, referring the crop of new, unhealthy fast food creations. "It's not the kind of thing people should be eating."
Today in Louisville, Ky., KFC celebrated its 70th birthday by setting a world record for the largest serving of fried chicken by handing out 2,000 pounds of the Colonel's Original Recipe chicken. None of that was grilled; all of it was eaten.
Correction: In the original Aug. 17 article, Dr. Jacobson's quote, "It's deadly," appeared to be specifically about KFC's Double Down sandwich. He was in fact commenting on the wider array of unhealthy sandwich creations.