Yum! In The News
This KFC engineer holds the most patents at KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell
Susan Miles didn’t set out to become KFC’s MVP (most voluminous patent-er), but her constant curiosity and drive continue to fuel packaging unlike any other in the fast-food industry.
Published on August 12, 2019
Most people look at KFC’s Cinnabon Dessert Biscuits and see warm, flaky biscuits drenched in a cinnamon glaze and cream cheese frosting. Not Susan Miles. The KFC senior engineering manager is more enamored with the box that houses the gooey biscuits — and not just because her team designed it.
“It solves a problem in a pretty unique way,” Miles said of packaging, which has the rare qualities of being both leak-proof and made of paper, rather than molded plastic. That makes it more cost effective and highly versatile. “It also allows team members to sauce the biscuits in the package, saving time and clean-up,” Miles said.
That should be enough for Miles to secure a patent on the package, the 13th of her 17-year career at the brand, giving her bragging rights of having the most patents of anyone at Yum! Brands — if she were the bragging type. Instead, Miles looks at her inventions with a sort of quiet reverence. The dessert box is, in her eyes, the best one yet. “I don't know if it's because it's the newest or because it's the one that is closest in my mind, but this one is probably my favorite,” she said.
The complete package
The package doesn’t just mark a new personal high for Miles, it breaks ground in the fast-food industry. “What we created is a whole new style of carton versus what’s currently in the market,” she said.
It’s a folding carton without holes in the bottom, making it leak-proof. That kind of leak resistance would typically look similar to a clamshell, Miles said, adding significant cost and supplier development time. But the dessert box arrives at the restaurant flat, so it ships easier, and it’s more cost effective because the foldable carton runs faster on a supplier line.
“To get this across the finish line, we went through months of planning and preparation, and Susan was there every step of the way, educating our leadership, including me, to ensure this goal was credible,” said Staci Rawls, KFC U.S. chief communications officer. “Susan epitomizes what great partnership looks like, and her passion for sustainability and in-depth knowledge of packaging solutions are invaluable to our brand.”
Her other favorite new package is the dine-in platter customers now get when eating in at a KFC.
“Our customers tell us it contemporizes the way they see the brand because it convinces them to sit down and stay awhile,” Miles said. And, unlike most paper packages that have to hold up to hot or greasy food, the dine-in platter isn’t coated in polymers, which allows it to be recycled.
That’s important both Miles, who has her training in chemical and environmental engineering, to Rawls, who said Miles is “absolutely advancing the KFC Global sustainability agenda” and to Yum!. In early 2019 Yum! announced a new global sustainability pledge aimed at “making the world better through socially responsible growth and serving more goodness to customers, employees, shareholders and communities.” Producing recyclable plastics is part of that mission, and so too is using sustainable fibers, Miles says.
One of Yum!’s most significant efforts on that front is its participation in the NextGen Cup Challenge, along with companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks and Coca-Cola, all of which are working to design the sustainable beverage cup of the future. Though Miles isn’t directly involved in that effort, she’s “excited Yum! is on the move in that area.”
The thrill of the challenge
The potential to solve big, thorny problems is what makes Miles love engineering, whether it’s figuring out how to package dessert biscuits without risking a mess or devising a method for easier eating on the go, which she’s done several different ways. “It's finding creative ways to solve problems, and that's kind of where I get my joy,” she said.
But that doesn't mean the process is easy. Zack Watts, a package engineer on Miles’s team, the supplier and Miles went through 31 iterations on the packaging for the dessert biscuits before it was finally ready to go. Some might call that tedious. Miles says it’s a reflection of the job being “whole-brained.” Not only does she have to work on the technical aspects of the design, including the materials it’s made from and the process used to manufacture it, but she has to get into the head of the customer.
“Whether it's designing a new package that earns a patent or smallware that help ops go faster, or keeping costs where they need to be — the solutions are the part that we really get the most excitement out of,” Miles said.
Images of Miles's patents.
The patent process
If those solutions bring something new to the marketplace — like the dearly departed Go Cup — Miles seeks to protect the design through a patent.
That means getting together with the marketing and legal departments to start hashing out a patent application. Then it’s off to the U.S. Patent Office, which may return with questions. Miles and her team work with legal to explain what’s unique about the product and then they wait for the final word. So far, she’s never received a “no.”
That’s nearly two decades of success, starting with her first patent for Triple Dip Strips, which put three chicken strips and three sauce cups together in one box. Along the way, Miles has had years in which she’s secured several patents and others spent working through the process of finalizing a design. Along with the patents for the Triple Dip Strip, Go Cup and Cinnabon Dessert Biscuits box (pending), Miles has secured patents for the Game Day Tray.
“I never realized I would ever get a patent in my life. That seems like something that was very unattainable,” she said. “Then you realize, when you develop something that's a solution that nobody's developed before, that's what a patent is."
With KFC’s commitment to sustainability and innovation, Miles is sure to accrue patent no. 14 in the not so distant future.
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