LONDON — In Britain, KFC has added a twist to the perennial riddle, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
“The chicken crossed the road,” the fast-food chain said on its website. “Just not to our restaurants.”
The company found itself on Tuesday in the throes of a massive chicken shortage for a third day running, after a hiccup in its supply chain forced half of its 900 outlets in Britain to close.
In one of the KFC holdouts, in Central London, a “limited menu” was on display, and one employee warned at noon that popcorn nuggets and corn were running out fast.
“We might have to close tomorrow,” he said, asking not to be identified because he was not allowed to talk to the news media.
Chicken shops abound in Britain, the largest European market for fast-food chicken according to Euromonitor International. It is the fifth-biggest market for KFC, representing about 6 percent of its roughly $24.5 billion in global sales last year. British chicken shops range from high-end rotisseries to dozens of KFC-inspired imitators covering enough American states that one data scientist put together a map of them.
The passion for fried chicken is so strong that a YouTube reviewer known as the Chicken Connoisseur has been given his own television show.
The irony of KFC, of all places, struggling to provide chicken was not lost on its customers. “How can you be out of the one thing you are known for selling?!?” wrote Aurie Styla, a comedian from London, on Twitter.
Others were simply baffled that a global chain could find itself in such a predicament. “If you’re going to run a franchise of this size, you would expect them not to run out of chicken,” Steve Biswell, a construction worker, said shaking his head as he returned to eating what was probably one of the shop’s last wings.
The collective disappointment reached even the corridors of power — Neil Coyle, a lawmaker representing a district of South London, tweeted that he had been contacted by constituents about their neighborhood KFCs, and the police found themselves caught in the middle.
Last week, the chain switched its delivery contract to DHL, owned by Germany’s Deutsche Post, which blamed “operational issues” for the delays. Until recently, supplies had been delivered to KFC restaurants by the South African-owned distributor Bidvest.
John Boulter, a managing director for DHL, said in a statement that the company was working hard with another partner in the supply chain, QSL, to rectify the “unforeseen interruption of this complex service.”
He added that, “Whilst we are not the only party responsible for the supply chain to KFC, we do apologize for the inconvenience and disappointment caused to KFC and their customers by this incident.”
QSL did not respond to requests for comment.
The shortage is a major logistical failure for KFC in one of its largest markets. The chain, owned by Yum Brands, said its new delivery partner was experiencing “a couple of teething problems.” Getting fresh chicken to 900 outlets across the country, KFC added, “is pretty complex!”
GMB, a trade union, said it had warned the company against making the switch, and that the closing of a Bidvest depot after it lost the contract had resulted in the loss of 255 jobs.
“We tried to warn KFC this decision would have consequences,” Mick Rix, GMB’s national officer, said in a statement, though he couldn’t help using puns. “Well now the chickens are coming home to roost. KFC’s birdbrained decision has caused untold misery to customers, to Bidvest workers and restaurant staff who are not being paid. Now they’ve been left with egg on their face.”
KFC said in a statement: “We feel for those who lost their jobs at Bidvest; the decision to change supplier wasn’t taken lightly. DHL have estimated that winning the KFC contract and opening the new distribution center has created 300 new jobs.”
KFC said that in the restaurants that it owned directly, it would pay salaried employees as normal, and workers on short-term contracts according to the average hours they had worked each day over the past 12 weeks. But franchisees, who run about 80 percent of its restaurants in Britain, would not have to adopt this policy.
Alex Jones, a spokesman for GMB, said: “Our members in KFC franchises are missing out on shifts with no idea when their stores will reopen. They’ve told us they’re now being advised to use their holiday entitlement to cover the working time they’ve lost as a result of this mess.”
George Adams, another KFC customer, took a phlegmatic view. “These things happen,” he said. “That’s a lot of chicken that everyone eats every day.”