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VOL. 44 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 28, 2020

Pickin' chicken

As fast-food chains fight for a leg up, just 2 sandwiches are worth crossing the road

By Catherine Mayhew

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The Chicken War of 2019, which began when Popeye’s scored a direct hit at Chick-fil-A by introducing what arguably could be called the ultimate “pullet surprise,” show no signs of slowing down in 2020.

It’s a story of intrigue, mystery and world domination. OK, it’s really just a story about chicken. But with the ascendance of the yard bird as the most popular protein among Americans as beef sales continue to decline, it means big money for the ultimate victor.

So all bets are off among the top chains that produce one version or another of a fried chicken sandwich.

Popeye’s is hammering home the popularity of its chicken sandwich with TV ads featuring rapturous diners luxuriating in the crunchy perfection of the sandwich.

“Look at you lookin’ all special,” says Daymon Scott “Daym” Patterson, a YouTube celebrity who does fast food reviews, talking to his sandwich in the commercial.

“But you won’t really get it until you get it,” the commercial ends. In 2019, too many people “got it.” More than 1,000 sandwiches were purchased per store each day, which led to the complete sellout of the phenomenon.

Chick-Fil-A isn’t exactly counter punching. Its latest TV ads play on the extreme customer loyalty the chain enjoys with vignettes of employees going over and above for its fan base.

And McDonald’s is working overtime in its Oak Brook, Illinois, headquarters putting the final touches on a new chicken sandwich it’s already test-marketed in Knoxville and Houston, hoping to break through to that elite echelon Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A already enjoy.

So let’s review the bloody battlefield of Chicken War of 2019.

About two years ago, the food scientists at Popeye’s gathered in their Miami test kitchen to develop a chicken sandwich aimed at taking on their chief chicken rival, mighty Chick-fil-A.

The Popeye’s chicken sandwich took the country by storm in 2019, threatening Chick-fil-A on the bun and in social media. It scored victories in both arenas.

-- Photo By Michelle Morrow |The Ledger

They developed a new buttermilk batter and added a special flour to amp up the crunchy texture. Then they used the same butter-like topping on their biscuits to shmear on the brioche bun and slid in some extra thick pickles and a dollop of mayonnaise.

Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A was coasting along per usual. The centerpiece of its menu, the chicken sandwich, hasn’t been modified since it first appeared in 1967. And it contains its own not-so-secret ingredients, including chicken that’s never frozen, a little MSG and a pickle juice bath to tenderize the meat.

Chick-fil-A also employs an intangible ingredient that drives intense customer loyalty. Its employees are actually happy and intensely polite. Its staff is actually trained to be “aggressively courteous.”

All that blew up Aug. 12 when Popeye’s new chicken sandwich was introduced. The war is on, and it’s not just between Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A. McDonald’s, Taco Bell and KFC also enter the fray.

First, let’s just remember the chaos. This whole new chicken sandwich thing completely gets away from Popeye’s. Lines formed around the block at every location nationwide. Traffic jams. Fights erupt. Popeye’s staff was stretched to the breaking point. There were employees who literally stood for 10 hours at a time making nothing but the chicken sandwiches.

There was a punching match at the Opry Mills Popeye’s. And another physical fight at the Popeye’s in Columbia that resulted in six broken ribs.

Chick-Fil-A’s Original Chicken Sandwich

I got a taste of the madness when my husband and I tried to get the sandwich at the Nolensville Road Popeye’s. After taking a left onto Nolensville Road from Harding, I noticed there was a line of cars ahead trying to get into the Popeye’s parking lot. Both ways.

When we got closer, a peek into the actual store revealed people packed like sardines inside. This was not going to have a good ending. We gave up and went for dim sum instead.

Meanwhile, the Twittersphere was in a tizzy. Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A went after each other.

The first Popeye’s tweet was innocuous. “Chicken. Brioche. Pickles. New. Sandwich. Popeyes. Nationwide. So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak. In. Complete. Sandwiches. I mean, sentences.”

Chick-fil-A responded: “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the love for the original.” And Popeye’s shot back, “Ya’ll good?”

Other chains responded, with Shake Shack making the joke of promising a chicken sandwich “without the beef.”

The Apex Marketing Group estimated that Popeye’s got more than $23 million in free advertising from the battle.

“Look how much attention they’re getting – it’s impressive,” Jonathan Maze of Restaurant Business Magazine told The New York Times. “All this is really going to do frankly is embolden other chains to do similar things when they introduce new products.”

The Twitter battles fueled the frenzy that sent Popeye’s chicken sandwich viral and resulted in it selling out nationally in just two weeks.

At McDonald’s, the franchisees were not happy. Their anxiety was detailed in an email between them obtained by Business Insider.

“We need to stay focused on coming up with a chicken sandwich our customers are going to crave,” it said. Another email compared the chicken sandwich war to the space race. “JFK called for a man on the moon, our call should be a category-leading chicken sandwich.”

“A favorite, that our customers want, is a chicken sandwich. Unfortunately, they have to go to Chick-fil-A for it,” the National Owners Association’s board wrote in a July letter reported by USA Today.

McDonald’s tried. It’s still trying. In early September, the chain introduced a spicy barbecue chicken sandwich. It bombed with critics saying it wasn’t spicy and the barbecue sauce overwhelmed the chicken.

In December, McDonald’s announced it was testing a new chicken sandwich at outlets in Knoxville and Houston. This one includes MSG as a flavor enhancer and resembles much more closely the sandwiches it’s trying to compete with.

McDonald’s hasn’t said when a nationwide rollout will start.

Other chains are trying to get in on the action, as well. Taco Bell is testing crispy tortilla chicken in Dayton, Ohio, and Houston.

It’s basically marinated chicken tenders coated in crushed tortilla chips. It’s expected to be in stores nationwide sometime this year.

Last fall, KFC experimented with a fried chicken and doughnut sandwich and a Nashville hot chicken and waffle combo.

The chain is test-marketing the first plant-based chicken in Nashville and Charlotte this month. Some who’ve tasted the chicken nuggets say they taste exactly like the real thing.

If KFC’s test run is successful, and the product is introduced chainwide, it will own the plant-based chicken space.

Meanwhile, Popeye’s regrouped and reintroduced its chicken sandwich in November.

It chose a Sunday for the debut – the day Chick-fil-A is closed. Touché. The supply line and labor issues have been resolved, so diners can get a Popeye’s chicken sandwich without risking their lives.

Why all this kerfuffle about a chicken sandwich? Dollars. Beef is no longer king at fast-food chains.

Generally, Americans eat more chicken every year than any other meat, and demand is growing.

Chick-fil-A and Popeye’s are already miles ahead in the chicken sandwich game, with McDonald’s, Wendy’s and others scrambling to catch up.

Who has the better chicken sandwich between Popeye’s, Chick-fil-A and the other chains is, of course, a matter of opinion until the chains release sales figures. Even then, nothing is conclusive.

Popeye’s has 3,102 restaurants, which are located in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and 30 countries worldwide. Chick-fil-A operates more than 2,300 restaurants, primarily in the United States with locations in 47 states.

So it comes down to individual taste. Because I am a highly scientific person who relies on industrywide data standards, I did my own test. On Facebook.

Popeye’s was the overwhelming choice, with one poster stating: “It’s like a high-quality sports bar-caliber sandwich, which is pretty remarkable for fast food.”

Lucky us that we can try both Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A and all the other chains and decide for ourselves.

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