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2018 Top 200: Cult favorites thrive in the chicken segment

2018 Top 200: Cult favorites thrive in the Chicken segment

Chick-fil-A and Raising Cane’s race ahead while KFC and Church’s Chicken retool marketing

This is part of the Nation’s Restaurant News annual Top 200 report, a proprietary ranking of the foodservice industry’s largest restaurant chains and parent companies.

The Chicken segment performed well in the Latest Year, with overall sales rising 7.3 percent, more than twice the overall Top 200 sales growth.

The fastest-growing Chicken chains, Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers and Chick-fil-A, continued to do what they do well.

Baton Rouge, La.-based Raising Cane’s continued rapidly expanding, opening a net 50 locations in the Latest Year, increasing its unit count by 16.6 percent, to 352 units. Sales — based on the chain’s streamlined menu of chicken fingers, fries, coleslaw, Texas toast and soft drinks — surged, too, resulting in sales growth of 30.2 percent, and bumping it from No. 69 to No. 55 among Top 200 chains ranked by Latest-Year U.S. systemwide sales.

In those same Top 200 sales rankings, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A moved from No. 8 to No. 7, slipping past Dunkin’ Donuts, with sales rising 13.7 percent. Unit count grew 7.2 percent as the chain opened a net 149 locations in the Latest Year, giving it a total of 2,234 restaurants.

KFC, with 4,109 units, still dwarfs Chick-fil-A, but the Yum! Brands Inc. chain closed a net 58 domestic locations in the Latest Year and reported a sales dip of 1.5 percent.

KFC’s 52-week Latest Year, compared with a 53-week Preceding Year, was a factor in its sales downturn, which ended a multi-year string of top-line growth. Nonetheless, Chick-fil-A, which became the nation’s top-selling chicken chain in 2012, continued to pull away. In the Latest Year, Chick-fil-A’s annual sales approached $9 billion, more than twice KFC’s $4.4 billion.

Chick-fil-A tweaked its menu in 2017, introducing the Hash Brown Scrambler — a breakfast bowl of hash browns, eggs and cheese topped with pork or chicken —and tested spicy chicken sandwiches in some markets, but, like Raising Cane’s, it mostly stuck to selling its cult-favorite fried-chicken sandwiches.

The chain also invested in drive-thru and mobile technology, said David Farmer, Chick-fil-A’s VP of restaurant experience and marketing, as well as in its staff through its Remarkable Future scholarship program, which gave $9 million in scholarships.

Wingstop saw a sales increase of just over 11 percent, moving it from No. 53 to No. 50 in the Top 200. Growth was driven by new units. The Dallas-based chain opened a net 105 units, giving it 11.4 percent more locations than in the Preceding Year.

KFC, still rebuilding as it closes underperforming domestic restaurants, upped its marketing game. In March, it promoted Kevin Hochman from CMO of KFC U.S. to president and chief concept officer.

The chain also introduced a new sauce, Georgia Gold Honey Mustard BBQ, and several new “Colonels,” including actor Rob Lowe to promote the Zinger sandwich, which the chain, in a promotional stunt, launched into space.

Andrea Zahumensky, who became CMO of KFC U.S. in late 2017, noted marketing activities including a limited-edition chicken-themed clothing line, a romance novella titled “Tender Wings of Desire” for Mother’s Day, and a partnership with WWE World Wrestling Entertainment for KFC’s first wrestling Colonel, she wrote in an email.

Despite the decline in overall sales, KFC moved from No. 13 to No. 12 in the Top 200, passing Sonic Drive-In.

Church’s Chicken saw sales dip 1.8 percent, slowing steeper declines from previous years but still causing the chain to slip from No. 63 to No. 66 in the Top 200 sales ranking, as CEO Joe Christina, who took the post in 2016, sought to improve the value proposition. The chain closed a net 61 units over the year, but Estimated Sales Per Unit grew nearly 4 percent, to $756,000. Only Raising Cane’s and Chick-fil-A grew ESPU faster.

“We’ve had a great year,” said CMO Hector Muñoz, who joined the chain in 2017. “There’s nothing but upside with this brand.”

Messaging in the coming year would likely focus on the chain’s 66-year history, innovation in the bone-in category and Church’s expertise in chicken and biscuits, Muñoz said.  

Read more:
2018 Top 200: Segment Trends

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected] 

Follow him on Twitter: @FoodWriterDiary

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