The Great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019 ruffled some feathers, with everyone taking sides and Chick-fil-A, Popeyes and Wendy’s sending salvos over Twitter, prompting taste tests, editorials about cultural appropriation and extreme chicken sandwich partisanship. Americans queued up in absurd lines until — what’s this? — Popeyes ran out of chicken. And buns.
And then this week, Popeyes scheduled a reunion, chicken sandwich and admirers together at last, the event pointedly poised to unfold on Sunday, the day Chick-fil-A is customarily shuttered.
All this poultry pandemonium has prompted some consumers and industry experts to wonder whether the beef burger is imperiled and the chicken sandwich on the ascent. There are interesting statistics: According to the National Chicken Council, in 1976, total per capita beef consumption in the United States was 94 pounds; chicken was 42. Last year, beef was 57 pounds and chicken consumption rose to almost 94 pounds per person. So, overall, American consumers have swapped out beef in favor of chicken.
But that does not tell the whole story, says Kim McLynn of the market research firm NPD Group. Sales of beef burgers, at 6.4 billion annually, are triple those of chicken sandwiches. Beef burgers declined by less than 1 percent last year, attributable partly to the rise of plant-based meats like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. Chicken sandwiches’ market share, 2.2 billion sandwiches, moved up only 3 percent.
For fast food, beef is still king.
Some of this is because of demographics and lifestyle changes, says David Portalatin, vice president and food industry adviser for NPD.
Eighty percent of what we eat over the course of a day is sourced from our own refrigerators and pantries, he says. But if you look at where we get our hamburgers, the numbers are nearly flipped, with 69 percent coming from a restaurant. A lot of that is because of burgers’ longtime running mate, the french fry. We love to eat them; we hate to cook them at home.
“We consume a lot of chicken at home. It’s a center-of-the-plate protein, in a casserole or a baked dish. We don’t consume them at home as chicken sandwiches,” Portalatin says.
He says beef burgers are the most-ordered restaurant item now, as they were 10 years ago and, he predicts, will be 10 years from now: “I assure you the burger is alive and well and will be for the foreseeable future.”
Boomers are retiring and thus not going to an office, and many more people are working remotely from home. More restaurant food is being consumed at home — whether via delivery or takeout — and this pulls for the convenience of portability and “handholds.”
Wings and other bone-in chicken parts are messier, harder to eat in the car. And they remind us of the animals they came from, a fact, says Portalatin, that millennials and Gen Z may be squeamish about. A breaded, boneless, skinless chicken sandwich is more divorced from something with feathers. Also, because each bird has only two wings, the rise of “boneless wings” (frequently strips of boneless, skinless breast) and chicken tenders is about restaurant chains managing their cost and being assured of sufficient supply.
So what are the chicken sandwich wars about?
“This whole thing is not about chicken sandwiches,” Portalatin says. “It’s about the virality of the story. And it’s a reflection of the performance of chains like Chick-fil-A.”
And about Popeyes running out of chicken and buns?
Nick Reader, chief executive and co-founder of the regional chicken chain PDQ, says that might have been a little bit of theatrics.
“Frozen chicken never runs out. You’re not seeing a chicken shortage anywhere in the country. If you’re selling something that is making money, you figure out a way to produce it,” Reader says.
He says the Popeyes chicken sandwich will be a case study in how to launch a limited-time offer, but warns that such offers may rebound against the company if they extend the drive-through speed. If a product launch is so huge that it taxes workers and alienates some core customers, a pause or discontinuation may be in order.
Reader says this launch was hugely successful because it created discussion and content, and got current customers to change their shopping pattern and new people to try. Then pulling the product and relaunching gave Popeyes an opportunity for more content.
But it was the social media interaction between the three fast-food giants that heightened the excitement level. Wendy’s, he says, is digitally edgy, and with this reboot, for Popeyes to go after Chick-fil-A, which he calls “the sacred cow,” captured customers’ attention.
“To go after them and be funny about it? It’s impressive as an overall campaign,” Reader says.
The number of chicken-only or chicken-forward restaurants has risen in the past several years, a response to the perception that chicken is healthier than beef. But on menus overall, according to an NPD study, burgers are included in 14.1 percent of all restaurant orders, and chicken sandwiches in 6.5 percent of orders. Poultry won’t rule the roost any time soon.