On a recent Thursday afternoon, I left my office early and strode – amid the soupy New York heat – to the KFC on 14th Street and 2nd Avenue. Outside, there were various signals that the fried chicken franchise was temporarily shuttered, at least to the public: greased windows had been completely obscured with vinyl decals – featuring illustrated cheetah spots atop fur – and there was a cluster of security guards manning the doors, clad in suits and sunglasses.
On the pavement were a series of cartoonish orange paw prints, a PR intervention designed to shepherd media toward a woman with a clipboard. She confirmed my RSVP, and I was beckoned through hurriedly, as the cheetah print doors closed behind me. I’d been invited, along with a handful of other journalists and fast food VIPs, including KFC’s CMO, to sample the restaurant’s latest product ahead of its release.
For the month of July, KFC stores across America will stock a Cheetos® Sandwich. Inside the toasted bun sits KFC’s classic “extra crispy” chicken fillet, its pressure-fried form now drenched in a “special Cheetos® sauce” and paired with a wiggle of mayo. There is also a layer of crunchy, goldfish-hued Cheetos® lining the bun.
For the majority of the one-hour tasting event, I stationed myself in a corner near the kitchen beside a potted plant – the prime vantage point to obtain first helpings of Mac and Cheetos® and dusted Cheetos® wings as they streamed out on plastic trays – and observed exactly what happens at the official VIP preview of a fried chicken sandwich.
I watched a server adjust a pair of flickering tealight candles on a KFC table, spacing them on diagonally opposite ends, before wiping a mound of Cheetos® dust off carefully with a washcloth. I saw a woman and man pose gleefully in front of the media wall – a Cheetos®-branded scarf tied, Audrey Hepburn-style, around the handle of the woman’s Longchamp Le Pliage bag, while he had arranged another as a pocket square, a move both genius and insane. (Later, because it seemed like the right thing to do, I had my photograph taken in the very same spot – an erstwhile ambassador for KFC and Cheetos® – my torso bisected by a gilt cardboard frame, while a still life of the synthetic cheese snacks loomed large behind me.)
I watched servers mill about wearing white suit jackets over T-shirts that were printed with trompe l’oeil tuxedos – like a sort of double suit – a pair of bright-orange costume glasses wrapped over their ears. In the part of the customer-facing kitchen where the colonel’s chooks would usually be displayed (a silver shelf with sliding doors), there were bags and bags of Cheetos®, artfully stacked against one another. As I sipped a bourbon and Mountain Dew cocktail – aptly christened the “Kentucky Lightning” – I heard somebody mention to somebody else that they would love to “get into the podcast space.”
The afternoon’s climax – inserting a sandwich full of individual Cheetos® inside my human mouth – was not disappointing, at least in regards to a nuanced, slightly tangy flavour profile, or plump white meat hunks rendered nuclear-orange with simulated cow product, or an exaggerated, genuinely satisfying crunch. I do not recommend you open the bun and look at it for an extended period, but if you are the type of person who finds gratification in unexpected spaces (cross-pollinating corporations, a classic crunch Cheeto over the hot variety) then this sandwich is a steal for $4.79.