How 2019 became the Year of the Chicken Sandwich

Decades from now, when historians look back at this year, they will refer to it as 2019 A.P., for “anno pulli” rather than “anno domini.” Because this, without question, was the Year of the Chicken Sandwich. Apologies to the deities who have been watching the fast-food poultry shenanigans that gripped the nation with a bemused chuckle as they indulged on their own, presumably non-chickeny, ambrosia (poor things).

This was the year a mere pile of bread reduced us to crazed, line-forming hordes wrapping around parking lots and spilling out onto the streets. This was the year that massive corporate entities battled like Real Housewives on Twitter over pucks of bird flesh.

Perhaps we were terrible all along, and the Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019 were just a mirror held up to show us our true selves. Or maybe we can blame it all on the sandos: so crispy, so spicy, so … intoxicating. These were the major plot points in the YOTCS.

Aug. 12

Popeyes, feeling pressure to one-up the reigning Big Bird, Chick-fil-A, introduces a new chicken sandwich, available in both spicy and mild versions. What might have seemed like a routine addition to a fast-food chain’s lineup quickly turns into a national obsession.

Propelled by a mix of tribalism (are you on Team Chick-fil-A, or are you a Popeyes stan?) and competition (’Gram that spicy sandwich before your friends do!), all goosed by social media, the sandwich becomes a viral sensation. It’s on the evening news, and nearly every food journalist around the country is contractually obligated to review it. The critics are raving about the new sandwich on the block.

Days into the frenzy, Chick-fil-A starts a Twitter beef over the new sandwich. “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ❤️ for the original,” Chick-fil-A taunted. Popeye’s claps back with faux concern: “... y’all good?”

Aug. 26

The national mania has a trickle-down effect: Lines form outside Washington fried chicken joint Roaming Rooster and business surges after a viral tweet suggesting that Popeyes “is cool and all,” but fried chicken fans should check out the sandwiches being served up at the local shop and food trucks owned by an Ethiopian immigrant family.

Aug. 28

Panic grips Chicken Nation, when, after two weeks of long lines and shortages plagued many locations, Popeyes announces that it’s sold out of The Sandwich. We should’ve known this was too good to last. Or perhaps Popeyes should’ve been better prepared. Or perhaps … this was all part of the plan?

Sept. 5

After watching the skirmish from a distance, fast-food giant McDonald’s joins the fray, introducing its own new spicy barbecue chicken sandwich. Alas, the Golden Arches’ entry looks like a hastily created concoction from spare parts lying around its garage. (Is that McRib sauce?)

Sept. 17

The Colonel isn’t sitting this one out, either: Not to be outdone, KFC experiments with chicken sandwich variations, including a fried chicken and doughnut sandwich, and later a Nashville Hot chicken and waffle variation (in November).

Nov. 3

Hope is the thing with feathers, remember? Order is temporarily restored in the universe when Popeyes re-stocks The Sandwich. The chain announces its triumphant return with another clap-back to Chick-fil-A for good measure: not coincidentally, the sandwich is reintroduced on a Sunday — the day that its rival is closed. Violence ensues, as a man is fatally stabbed in the parking lot of a Popeyes location in Oxon Hill, Md., after an argument that allegedly began when the victim cut in line.

Nov. 18

With competition for customers heating up, Chick-fil-A announces that it has discontinued its foundation’s donations to groups that are controversial in the LGBTQ community.

Dec. 2

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery? McDonald’s announces that it is testing another new chicken sandwich — and this one, with its buttery bun and pickles, looks like a dead ringer for Chick-fil-A’s.

The pop-culture status of the chicken sandwich inspires some just-in-time-for-the-holidays merch. KFC brings back its fried-chicken-scented fire logs, while Popeyes introduces an ugly Christmas sweater emblazoned with the famed menu item and its logo.

And so we await what 2020 will bring, chicken sandwich-wise: More ruffling of feathers? A detente with a side of fries? Or maybe we’ll collectively tire of crying fowl and move on ... to burgers.

Emily Heil

Emily Heil is a reporter covering national food news and trends. Previously, she co-authored the Reliable Source column for The Post.

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Illustrations by Dan Woodger for The Washington Post. Art direction and design by Amanda Soto.

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