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Earlier today I was eating a piece of leftover Kentucky Fried Chicken over the kitchen sink when a thought struck me. The Colonel's secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices is highly guarded and the KFC company has a history of being very litigious when it comes to protecting that secret. So, if I could figure out the secret recipe, I could probably stir up a fair amount of shit. Sweet.

How could I figure it out? Well, I don't really have to. I think I could probably make KFC tell me - in a roundabout sort of way. Let me explain:

Let's start by considering what we know about the recipe. The KFC company itself has given us 2 terrific clues:

First, we know the recipe contains only 11 herbs and spices. That fact alone gives us a tremendous advantage when it comes to guessing the recipe. Think about it - if we didn't know how many spices we were looking for then we'd have to consider recipes ranging from 2 ingredients to a zillion ingredients. Thanks KFC!

Second, we know that it contains herbs and spices. That is, not just herbs and not just spices. That fact allows us to reject all recipes that contain only spices or only herbs. The recipe must be some combination of the two. That said, this point also forces us to realise that opinions may vary on what constitutes an herb and what makes a spice, so perhaps this point isn't truly as valuable as it might first appear.

Now we need to consider a bit of history. Colonel Sanders was about 49 years old when he perfected his chicken recipe (I looked it up). Being born in 1890, that puts us around 1939, which is about the end of the Great Depression. We also know that the Colonel created this recipe while he was living in Corbin, Kentucky. From these facts we can, fairly safely, make some assumptions about what herbs and spices would be most commonly available in that area of the country at that time in history. Given that the Depression was just coming to an end and World War II was about it begin, I think it's safe to say that a poor gas station attendant, which Harland was, wasn't importing expensive spices from around the world. Think cheap, local ingredients.

However, we must also take into account the Colonel's military career. He spent a year as "Private Harland Sanders" when he joined the US Army in 1907. How does this apply, you ask? Well, he was stationed in Cuba and may have had access to a variety of herbs and spices that were, until that point, unknown to him. So we can't necessarily restrict our ingredient guesses to typically american southern spices - there's Cuba, and by extension, Spain, to consider as well.

Ok, so enough about selecting the herbs and spices. Let's mark that down as an exercise and set it aside: Determine a list of most-likely recipe ingredients. Now let's look at how to determine the recipe by mixing some technology with the litigious nature of the KFC company.

Step one is the technology. I could easily write a computer application that would take all the ingredients we know of and determine every combination of 11 herbs and spices based on that initial set of ingredients. And therefore, as long as our initial selection of ingredients contains all of the correct 11 herbs and spices, one of the computer generated combinations will be correct. In fact, the only reason for limiting ourselves to the "most likely" ingredients is so our list of possible combinations doesn't get too long. If we wanted, we could just as easily include every known herb and spice.

Alright, so now we have a list of recipes. A LOT of recipes, but the odds are that one of them is correct. Now we just have to make KFC tell us which one it is.

For this next step it would be handy if we were a giant newspaper mogul like Conrad Black (i.e. having access to many newspapers and (allegedly) lacking in moral fibre). We need to take each recipe and publish it in a newspaper, website, or get it on a TV commercial. Each recipe, separately. You see, the KFC company won't care about all the newspaper stories and web pages that talk about recipes that are wrong. But you can be sure they'll point all their lawyers at the newspaper or website or TV commercial that got the right one.

And then we've got it.

Which ever recipe the KFC company is most agitated by must be the correct one, right?

And that's it. That's my plan to learn the secret recipe of the Colonel. I know it sounds a little "out there", but it's completely doable. And if I ever find myself with plenty of time on my hands and the ability to manipulate the content of thousands of newspapers, TV channels and websites, I just might do it.

While I applaud FredPenner’s detailed scheme to wrest the Colonel’s secret recipe from the hands of the corporate entity that is KFC, the economist in me can’t help but notice the futility of his plan. Before I go into the economic rationale behind why his plan won’t produce a positive outcome for anyone involved, let’s make a few assumptions. The first assumption is that KFC does indeed have a secret recipe (one that is not simply a cheap marketing gimmick), and they are utilizing that secret recipe to somehow differentiate their product from other fried chicken in the market. This secret recipe allows them to create a product that is “better”, and allows KFC to artificially increase the price of their chicken over others. The second assumption is that FredPenner’s master plan succeeds, and he becomes the only non-KFC-affiliated person on Earth who knows the secret combination of eleven delectable herbs and spices. The third assumption is that FredPenner, KFC, and all other fried chicken makers are rational actors who are looking to improve their own payoff; otherwise, why would FredPenner bother to discover the recipe in the first place?

Now, what can FredPenner do with the Colonel’s recipe now that he has it? Unless he’s already a chicken-making mogul, the answer is “very little”. He can use it to start his own fried chicken restaurant, but without a significant amount of capital, he’d be unable to compete with KFC since the company already has a significant share of the market. KFC can engage in predatory pricing in the short-term to force his fledging chicken enterprise out of business. Poor FredPenner will be worse off than when he started.

FredPenner has another option; he can try to sell the recipe to KFC’s main competitor. Without delving too deep into the market share distribution of the fried chicken industry, let’s just assume it’s Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits. Popeyes can use the recipe to improve its own chicken, but then both Popeyes and KFC would have identical products, or perfect substitutes. Without any real difference between the products, consumers will just purchase whichever one has a lower price, making both firms lose out on profits when they price-cut each other. It’s not in Popeye’s interest to buy the corporate secret from FredPenner.

FredPenner can choose to release the secret recipe to the public under the belief that finger-lickin’ good chicken is a god-given right of humanity. But we’re working under the assumption that he’s a rational actor looking to maximize his payoffs, and revealing the secret for free won’t earn him any tangible benefits. He'll only damage KFC and Popeyes’ market shares, but since he’s not gaining anything, he’s just being vindictive and creating a Pareto inefficient outcome. The best he can do is try to blackmail KFC for money by threatening to release the secret, but if KFC used backwards induction, they’d quickly find that FredPenner has a payoff choice between keeping quiet and gaining nothing, or releasing the secret and facing arrest/litigation for blackmail. KFC would then refuse to give in to his demands since he has nothing to gain but everything to lose. So unless FredPenner derives great satisfaction from being the Che Guevara of the fried chicken industry, his plan to uncover the Colonel’s closely guarded secret is a doomed one as far as economics is concerned.

A real-life example of all these decision-making economic concepts can be found in the soda industry, as Coca-Cola employs a similar marketing strategy with its “secret formula” for Coke. In July 2006, PepsiCo cooperated with authorities and Coca-Cola in a sting operation to root out Coca-Cola employees who were planning on selling company secrets for $1.5 million. If the crooks had only consulted me beforehand, or taken basic economics courses, they might have given up their foolhardy ploy and just stuck with their dayjobs.

As an ex-KFC employee, this is yet another disappointment to conclude the list of horror stories I have from my 52 day journey through hell.

The full story of my employment is probably best for another write up, but for now I will point out that I was the one in charge of the 'chicken marinating' process for a short while.

The plain and raw chicken bits came in daily, loaded off a truck. At this point, there was nothing special about it. Every day, some poor bastard had the job of going through each box of chicken (where I was, there were probably 6 boxes a day) and opening it up. Inside each box were 10 loose-mesh bags. The kind you could tear, but not without cutting into your hands far more than you are comfortable with. In each bag was 10 pieces of ice cold chicken. Each box would be dumped into this big round plastic drum (for those of you doing the math, that is 100 bits of chicken at a time) and marinated for 5 minutes on tumble (like a washing machine) with this bagged concoction mixed in with water.

The bag your food is mixed with at a first glance looks like it contains some caustic chemical. It was very plain, black on white writing. On the back are ingredients, but it looks more like an MSDS sheet. The top 2 were salt and MSG (although I can't remember in which order), and the rest of the names (there weren't many more) were indistinguishable. The kind of things on ingredient labels that you would normally just pass off as preservatives, color, and a little extra added carcinogens simply for the manufacturer's amusement. Certainly nothing you could expect to find from a grocery store.

The real secret to KFC is not in the '11 herbs and spices'. No, to be honest, the secret is what it's cooked in. It's no surprise that the chicken is deep fried, but KFC takes it one step further. Instead of using regular fryer oil (which is unhealthy enough), they used pure shortening. This stuff comes in huge boxes and it is thicker than butter until heated. It is esentially lard. KFC is the greasiest, saltiest thing anyone will ever taste. That is the only secret. But please, eat up. If there is KFC around me, it's all yours. Hungry or not, I won't be sad to see it go.

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