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hardees nashville hot.jpg Photo courtesy of Hardee's
Hardee's recently launched a Nashville hot chicken sandwich.

How the ‘chicken sandwich wars’ have evolved

As consumer demand continues to call for fried chicken sandwiches, restaurant brands have accelerated innovations of the product.

Today is National Fried Chicken Sandwich Day and several brands are running promotions of their signature offerings to celebrate. One would argue that this food holiday has significantly more weight behind it now than it did in early 2019 – before Popeyes fired off a single tweet that said “… y’all good?” in response to Chick-fil-A’s tweet showcasing its signature sandwich.

The story of what has happened since has been well documented. Popeyes’ product was such a remarkable success, the company began growing its footprint again because of its impact on average unit volumes. To no surprise, seemingly every brand across every segment then came out with their own version of a fried chicken sandwich, attempting to emulate the wild success Popeyes had since that tweet and, notably, the wild success Chick-fil-A has had since its beginnings.

McDonald’s, for example, leveraged its world-famous brand equity to gain more ground in this competition, renaming its crispy chicken sandwich the McCrispy. Even Wingstop, which previously touted its position as a “category of one” – and that category being wings – jumped into the ring, rolling out sandwiches available in all 12 of its sauce flavors.

If possible, that competition has intensified throughout the past year or so. Not only are brands still promoting their popular core chicken sandwiches, they’re iterating the hell out of them.

Consider KFC’s Ultimate BBQ Fried chicken sandwich as an example. Or, Popeyes new spicy Truff chicken sandwich. Hardee’s recently debuted a Nashville hot chicken, while Chick-fil-A came up with a Honey Pepper Pimento chicken sandwich, and Smashburger introduced a Scorchin’ chicken sandwich. Burger King launched a Honey Mustard BK Royal crispy chicken sandwich, and Wendy’s gave us a Ghost Pepper Ranch chicken sandwich. To get to the point, our inboxes have been filled with news about chicken sandwich variations across the industry of late.

Notably, such variations aren’t new. KFC created a Cheetos chicken sandwich back in 2019, for instance. But things have changed, particularly as brands chase younger consumers who tend to frequent restaurants more and who tend to prefer boneless, portable chicken offerings.

“Chicken sandwiches are the number one fried chicken meat format in the U.S. from a total consumption and total number of servings standpoint. Consumers love chicken sandwiches. How do you differentiate? I think you need a base, or core, chicken sandwich that people can point to. And where the war has gone now is into flavor diversity – trying to differentiate and attract more than your fair share of consumption via unique flavors. We did that with our Ultimate BBQ sandwich and it did really well for us,” KFC CMO Nick Chavez said during a recent interview.

To get a sense of this so-called “chicken sandwich wars 2.0” landscape, consider Technomic Ignite data: chicken sandwich instances on menus have increased by over 4% year-over-year. Variations have increased at about the same pace, with chicken parmesan chicken sandwiches up nearly 4%, while chicken Ceasar sandwiches have grown nearly 5%. Buffalo chicken sandwiches are up over 3% year-over-year.

During a recent interview, Vijay Sukumar, KFC’s chief food innovation officer, agrees that there is absolutely a new dynamic to the chicken sandwich competition, and said it is being driven by younger consumers who prefer more flavors and who want more variety.

“Variety is clearly something consumers want and what they’re expecting,” he said. “Chicken sandwiches are a fertile platform for flavor innovation.”

Of course, innovation has always been a necessity, but it has also become a bit harder to execute as operators strive for efficiency amid high costs and continued labor shortages. Sukumar said that’s why we’re seeing simple innovation tactics, like sauces, take over the spotlight  – at KFC and elsewhere.

“We’re heading more toward being simpler and one of the ways to do that is to try new sauces in different formats, or leverage existing ingredients in other products,” he said. “Restaurants are finding ways to sell more variety with a simplistic operational approach. We’re seeing a lot of cross utilization of ideas. This idea is getting richer, and I think it’s only getting started.”

That means we could very well see a “chicken sandwich wars 3.0” down the road, where brands start to innovate each component of the product.

“In the future, I think we see more innovations coming not only in the form of sauces, but also in the bread. When we first launched, we spent a lot of time getting our brioche bun right. Or, think of how much the pickle has become a differentiator all of a sudden,” Sukumar said. “There are so many more opportunities out there.”

Contact Alicia Kelso at [email protected]

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