When researching company histories, we often juxtapose the decisions, products, and values a company made in the past with those it puts forth today. We’re looking for connections between past and present, a clear line of sight from the foundations on which the company was built to the choices it currently makes.

In this exercise, we regularly find that companies that stick to their original mission—even if they’ve updated the tools and processes they use to carry it out—are successful. Oftentimes, the rough patches we find along a company timeline can, in fact, be traced to a divergence from tradition, a cultural departure that can make the company seem almost unrecognizable to consumers—and employees.

But, as USA Today reports, many well-known brands in the restaurant industry are radically deviating from the paths on which their reputations were made in an effort to get more people in the door and boost sagging, recession-driven numbers.

Never mind that KFC’s (YUM) middle name is “fried,” as in Kentucky Fried Chicken. Its biggest campaign of 2009 is to sell what it calls unfried (i.e. grilled) chicken.

Pizza Hut, whose first name is pizza, is pushing pasta like there’s no tomorrow. Home delivered, no less.

McDonald’s, (MCD) the world’s biggest fast-food chain, is in the midst of rolling out a line of designer coffees—even as Starbucks (SBUX) is peddling value meals.

These are just a few of the restaurant chains that have begun pushing products that seem counter-intuitive. But are these products truly cultural deviations? Or are they merely the logical next step for companies that have histories of adaptation and survival?

Consider the example of Kentucky Fried Chicken. While the obvious association is fried food, its true heritage lies in responding to customer needs—at the time of its founding, the need to make fried chicken fast. Founder Colonel Sanders’s breakthrough came when he discovered a way to make his secret-recipe fried chicken in 5 minutes using a pressure cooker, instead of the original 30 minutes it had previously taken him to fry it in a skillet. Today, consumers want their chicken fast and healthy.

Maybe the fried chicken powerhouse’s grilled option isn’t a radical shift, but instead a continuous adaptation of cooking style. Perhaps the recession has forced more businesses to really listen to consumers. After all, the desire for healthier food options isn’t a new trend (think how long Jared, the Subway spokesman, has been pushing the sandwich maker’s lower calorie meals). But it took a hit to the bottom line to get KFC to respond to changing tastes.