Food and Beverage

Passing the taste test: KFC’s food guru in Asia

By Lisa Finney in Hong Kong

Passing the taste test: KFC’s food guru in Asia

So, have you tried a ‘Chizza’ yet? It’s KFC’s latest innovation – a hybrid of fried chicken and pizza, it’s essentially pizza toppings on a fried chicken base. KFC, the global fast food restaurant chain, launched it in Singapore in February this year, after first debuting it in the Philippines two years ago.

Interviewee: DHIRAJ BHAMRAY - Head of Food Innovation Technology & Quality, Yum! Restaurants, Asia

It’s now rapidly heading to a restaurant near you, and the person you have to thank for it is Dhiraj Bhamray, head of food innovation technology and quality at Yum! Restaurants in Asia.

“That particular product was developed in the Philippines and it’s just gone all over the world really quickly,” says Bhamray. “It was taken up in Europe, Japan, and all over Asia Pacific. We’ve seen how we can take good innovations global very quickly, given our appeal and reach.”

All the ‘inventions’ that come out of Bhamray’s region start with consumers, who the business spends a lot of time tapping in to – “they are always looking for something that is new, exciting, distinctive and unique, and they have certain expectations of KFC”, he says.

Consumers were apparently crying out for a low-carb, high protein pizza alternative, and the Chizza delivers.

“What is important is giving them a very KFC sort of product, but something they can still relate to and localise to their taste,” he says. “It can go down to Japan or Korea and they might have a local flavour and further innovate on it.”

KFC is a franchise business, so Bhamray works closely with franchise operators across Asia, taking responsibility for both food innovation and quality assurance. Based in Singapore, he oversees restaurants in 14 countries across Asia, from Japan in the east and Mongolia in the north, to Myanmar in the west and Indonesia in the south. 

That’s one tough brief: “When you’re in multiple geographies, each with their own challenges, it can be difficult,” he says. “You have Indonesia, for example, with its 10,000 islands. How do you really get the food transported from one island to another? How do you store it, and ensure the temperatures are working well, to guarantee you deliver a safe product to the consumer? What makes this role really exciting is the special challenges we have in Asia.”

The region is also a hotbed of innovation, it seems. In 2015, KFC’s Double Down Dog – a hot dog wrapped in a fried chicken bun, covered in cheese – also started life in selected restaurants in the Philippines.

Bhamray has been working with Yum! Restaurants, which also owns the Pizza Hut and Taco Bell brands, for 21 years. It is the world’s largest restaurant company, with over 39,000 restaurants in more than 130 countries and territories, and Bhamray has worked across all three of those brands during his time with the business. He started out based in the Indian subcontinent for six years, before relocating to Singapore, and has been in his current role, focused on the poultry operations, since May 2015.   

“This is a fantastic position to be in,” he says. “Typically, people are either in innovation or quality, but having the opportunity to do both things together helps speed things up, and makes sure I have a complete view of the supply chain right from where the ingredients are sourced through to the food landing on the customers’ plates.”

He adds, “Being in the poultry business, getting down to the details is very important, and you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to look across the whole picture if you were in one function or the other. At the end of the day, the food has to be exciting, so one has to really look right from the farm to the fork.”

While Bhamray is managing 3,500 restaurants across the region, the franchised nature of the business means he is not looking at each store on a daily basis. But that creates its own challenges in ensuring each restaurant is serving the same quality of food, and maintaining consistency of food safety.

 “This role has given me the opportunity to work on designing and implementing new processes and systems,” he says. “The business is so complex – it’s not just manufacturing in one location, but making it and serving it across the whole of Asia.”

The key to delivering innovation across such a complex business lies in collaboration, says Bhamray, who says ideas never come from the central hub, but by listening to all the many people involved in the chain. 

“We have a central R&D hub in Singapore,” he says, “but the principle is collaboration. I have my own team of food scientists based here, and the franchise partners in each country also have their own resources. We help the franchisees build their own innovation teams in their markets, and support them with hiring and training. And then we work very closely with those innovation teams, and with suppliers.”

The innovation is never top-down, but is driven by consumers, and it typically takes 18 to 24 months to get a new product from concept to customer. “The important thing is to make sure we have good testing procedures. Our tasting labs are in the field, in our restaurants, for consumers who come to us often, and for those we would like to attract,” says Bhamray.

When it comes to quality assurance, complexity in the supply chain is another issue. “We have regional suppliers who are exporting out to various countries, and we have local suppliers just supplying our brands in a particular country,” he says. “We have a clear roadmap on how QA comes into play at every stage of our supply chain cycle, whether it’s sourcing for supply to restaurants or getting ingredients for innovation.”

His role means overseeing two quality teams – one tasked with making sure the food served in restaurants meets the highest standards, and one monitoring every step of the supply chain. He also engages third party auditors to check on things.

When it comes to hiring talent, Bhamray says the challenge lays not in sourcing people with the right capabilities, but with the right attitude: “That’s key, because we are trying to influence franchise partners and work well with them,” he says. “For us, getting the right people is not easy. We may find people who have worked in food innovation or food safety, but they might have been in a closed plant, not interacting with consumers, and so they don’t have the right kind of skills, appetite or experience to engage with our partners.”

Yum! allows its brands significant room for local product development, so 75% of a menu may be standardised, but the rest could include local recipes, with hot and spicy variations for some markets, or special side dishes in others – “that keeps the innovation engine running”, says Bhamray.

He describes himself as a foodie, and says he once went to medical school for a day, before deciding he wanted to build a career doing “anything to do with food”. He says, “I will do anything to give people food that will make them say wow, whether it’s my friends and family at home, or consumers in our restaurants.”

He adds, “My kids keep telling me how lucky I am because I get paid for eating.” 

With the opportunity to sample Chizza and Double Down Dogs on a daily basis, it’s perhaps little wonder he’s stuck around so long

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About the author

Lisa Finney specialises in recruiting at a mid-senior level exclusively across Procurement, Supply Chain and Operations. Working solely with clients and candidates within Food & Beverage.

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