In the summer of 2019, Popeyes threw the fast-food industry for a loop. The Southern-inspired chain released a new crispy fried chicken sandwich topped with pickles on a brioche bun that quickly became the success story of the decade. Record sales, memes, and Twitter feuds with rival brands soon followed, but the real impact on the fast-food biz was just getting started.
In the year-plus since, even amid a global pandemic, the fried chicken sandwich has continued to transform the fast-food landscape, bringing new competition to the dominant chains and forcing some to come up with a crispier, more authentic chicken offering of their own.
"This has been really one of the standout product stories in the restaurant space in the last several decades," said R.J. Hottovy, director of financial analytics at Aaron Allen & Associates, a restaurant consultancy firm.
A chicken sandwich is seen at a Popeyes, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, in Kyle, Texas. After Popeyes added a crispy chicken sandwich to their fast-fast menu, the hierarchy of chicken sandwiches in America was rattled, and the supremacy of Chick-fil-A and others was threatened. It’s been a trending topic on social media, fans have weighed in with YouTube analyses and memes, and some have reported long lines just to get a taste of the new sandwich. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
The only comparable single-product phenomenon in recent memory, he added, was Starbucks' pumpkin spice latte, which quickly inspired imitators across the coffee shop industry. Now that same process is unfolding among fast-food brands eager to take advantage of what's looking less and less like a fad and more like a sea-change in what customers want.
"I think this trend is going to continue," he said. "I don't think this is just a story of 2019 and 2020. We think there's going to be continued momentum in this category for the next few years."
Of course, this isn't the first chicken sandwich to be sold at a fast-food chain. Most of the major brands have offered at least one, if not several options, for decades. But not all chicken sandwiches are made the same, and the recent crop is touting their authenticity.
"It's the idea that it's more authentic. That's the way Popeyes positioned it," Hottovy said. "It's just like you would see in certain markets of the south."
In October, Wendy's released a new "Classic Chicken Sandwich" with a similar cross-section of crispy, all-white meat, pickles, and mayo on a toasted bun. It also promised to swap in the new chicken fillet into existing chicken offerings.
Meanwhile, McDonald's, still the reigning fast-food champ, is revving up to enter the chicken sandwich wars as well. The global chain plans to release its new chicken sandwich in 2021.
Details are still forthcoming, but the company said it will feature a "craveable crispy chicken fillet, topped with crinkle cut pickles and butter, all served on a toasted potato roll.”
Starting to sound familiar, right?
Better Than Pizza
The stakes are high for those still trying to shoulder their way into the new market. In the second quarter of 2020, chicken was 17.9 percent of comparable store sales, the highest category among billion-plus dollar businesses, according to research from Aaron Allen & Associates.
"That actually beat the pizza category," Hottovy said. "There's been a lot of discussion about pizza being strong, particularly delivery, in this environment, but actually chicken has been the strongest category."
On the delivery front, Doordash reported in November that the fried chicken sandwich was the second most ordered item in 2020, behind only the venerable chicken finger.
In this March 16, 2020 file photo, a delivery worker rides his bicycle along a path on the West Side Highway in New York. The pandemic shuffled the deck for the so-called gig economy as fear of contracting the coronavirus led many who once traveled in shared vehicles to stay home, and grocery delivery services struggled to keep up with demand from people who didn’t want to risk stepping into a store. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Indeed, the sudden and unexpected success of the fried chicken sandwich is changing the competitive fault lines of the fast-food industry. Where once category-specific chains such as Popeyes posed little threat to giants such McDonald's, now they're bringing the heat.
"McDonald's would have defined their competition as Wendy's or Burger King because they sell burgers," said Jonathan Silver, founder and CEO of Affinity Solutions, a market research firm. "What our data showed is that McDonald's customers specifically shifted share over to Popeyes when Popeyes introduced the chicken sandwich."
Right after the sandwich first became available in August — after which it quickly sold-out — sales at Popeyes popped 20 percent. Following a re-launch in November, they rose 80 percent, according to data provided by Affinity.
While Popeyes' market share has fallen considerably year-over-year compared to the unprecedented heights it reached in 2019, it's maintained a higher relative market share than prior years.
Silver noted that it was "highly unusual" for a single product to have that kind of impact, but that social media, real-time data, and more open-minded and receptive consumers are all contributing to a more accelerated and responsive competitive landscape.
"I think that it's unusual if we look backwards, but it's not that unusual looking forward," he said.