Clucking Delicious: The Chicken Sandwich Wars Heat Up

Turns out, most quick service restaurants likely already have the pieces in place to make a run at the chicken sandwich.

Ok, let’s get something out of the way before diving in, shall we? Chicken sandwiches are nothing new to restaurants. Go to any local restaurant in your city, town, village, whatever, and you’ll find several variations of the humble handheld. Grilled, fried, buffalo-style, or slathered in BBQ sauce, you know what you’re getting. 

That’s what makes the recently ignited Chicken Wars so interesting, unique, exciting, and, quite frankly, great for the industry. It’s been more than 40 years since the Burger Wars began, and although the battle keeps raging on, the skirmishers have moved from one protein to another, forcing several brands to fight on two fronts. 

On August 12, 2019, Popeyes launched the salvo that set the quick service restaurant segment on fire. Featuring a brioche bun, pickles, Popeyes buttermilk batter, and a kiss of mayo, they had – dare I say – an elegant take on the chicken sandwich. The world went nuts, sparking a fracas that I personally hope never ends. 

Since then, it feels like every QSR (Quick Service Restaurant) in the United States has tried its hand at a chicken sandwich. McDonald’s released its Crispy Chicken Sandwich in several varieties. KFC followed soon after with its Chicken Sandwich in early 2021, and Burger King is releasing the Ch’King any day now. Jack in the Box has The Cluck, and even Taco Bell jumped into the fray with its Naked Chicken Chalupa. 

Then you’ve got Zaxby’s, Church’s Chicken, Whataburger, BurgerFi, Fatburger… the list goes on and on. But why? What is it about chicken that seems to be getting every QSR chain riled up? The answer might be in its simplicity.

Why Chicken? Why Now?

Turns out, most quick service restaurants likely already have the pieces in place to make a run at the chicken sandwich. Nearly every major chain has some sort of fryer, so cooking the chicken is easy. Even better, everything needed for the sandwich is likely already inventoried, so it isn’t much of a stretch to toss the burger patty aside for a thick piece of chicken. 

During a recent interview with The Food Institute, Lizzy Freier, senior research manager of menu at Technomic, a research company focusing on the foodservice industry, mentioned how little it takes to join the fight.  

“This is really a trend that basically any fast-food concept can hop on fairly quickly,” Freier explained. “Most of these restaurants are already sourcing some kind of fried chicken, or at least have fryers in their restaurants and source chicken. So, it’s not a huge lift to really get a new sauce on it and re-release it as part of the chicken wars.” 

For every brand mentioned, the move toward releasing a limited-time offer (LTO) sandwich is an opportunity to bring in extra guests, dollars, and media exposure. Popeyes laid the blueprint for creating buzz around a new menu item, using its exclusivity to help its sandwich quickly sell out across the country. The positive reception and excitement resulted in a massive success for the brand, which responded by making the sandwich a permanent fixture at its locations in November 2019.

Why LTOs Make Sense for Restaurants

What we’re seeing today is a smattering of LTOs (Limited Time Offers) across the landscape, but it’s important to understand why restaurants do this in the first place. LTOs are a fantastic way to drive traffic to your restaurant, especially coming out of the hellscape the industry found itself in during 2020. Fans who love your menu will flock to try out the new offering, while others will simply stop by to compare it to their favorite products served somewhere else. 

It’s also important to keep in mind that the Chicken Wars have also been a major boon for restaurant innovation. Chicken is an easy ingredient to work with, so whether it gets the deluxe treatment, simple bread and fry, or anything else you can think of, everything is an experiment. It allows chains to jump on trends quickly, see what works, easily kill what doesn’t perform and keep what does. 

Lastly, it promotes exclusivity. Yeah, it might be a chicken sandwich, but I’ve never had it before and there aren’t that many to go around. It’s the luxury of having an experience that a guest typically wouldn’t get to have. It’s what made people lose their minds in 2017 over a venison sandwich from Arby’s.

Let the Chicken Wars Rage

Sure, a chicken sandwich might not be the greatest thing on Earth, but it’s a compelling reason for guests to leave their houses and indulge for lunch, dinner, or even breakfast (I’m looking at you, Carl’s Jr., with that Chicken and Waffle sandwich). It’s a terrific way to create a little excitement among an audience that desires convenience and flavor at a reasonable price. 

With that said, long live the Chicken Wars! Everyone gets to benefit in this fight, no matter who wins.

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