The fast-food brand said US customers were buying double as many of the sandwich, simply called the “KFC Chicken Sandwich,” as they had of other sandwiches launched in the past. The new sandwich replaced the “Crispy Colonel,” and KFC has also previously launched a Cheetos sandwich and a donut fried chicken sandwich.
“Our main challenge has been keeping up with that demand,” David Gibbs, CEO of KFC’s parent company Yum Brands, said at its earnings call Wednesday.
Fast-food and fast-casual chains have been quick to jump in on the booming demand for chicken sandwiches. As well as KFC, other brands including McDonald’s, Burger King, and Smashburger all launched new chicken sandwiches during the pandemic.
Chick-fil-A is known as the home of the original chicken sandwich, and its recipe has changed little since its creation by the chain’s founder in 1964, Insider’s Erin McDowell reported.
Immediately, fans and industry experts began to notice that the new offerings seemed very similar to Chick-fil-A’s and Popeyes’ iconic chicken sandwiches. Insider’s Kate Taylor previously reported on a leaked menu that revealed McDonald’s plans to release a new chicken sandwich, saying that the chain was planning to “take a page out of Chick-fil-A’s playbook.”
Former McDonald’s chef Mike Haracz told Insider “it’s very apparent” that McDonald’s is following Chick-fil-A’s lead with its sandwich. “It comes in a foil bag just like Chick-fil-A, from what I understand it has a very similar flavor profile,” he said.
“Chick-fil-A has very strong brand loyalists,” former McDonald’s chef Mike Haracz told Insider. “I’ve sat in panels when I was doing chicken work. They will try the food, but when you tell them it’s not from Chick-fil-A they’ll say, ‘Well, I think it’s great but I’m not going to buy it because I am a Chick-fil-A consumer.” However, there are some people who might go to Chick-fil-A strictly for the flavor, and if McDonald’s can match that, they may be swayed.”
Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwich, which comes served on a toasted, buttered bun with dill pickle chips, is a favorite among customers.
According to a report by Edison Trends, Chick-fil-A received more online chicken sandwich delivery orders than any other brand in most of 2020, cornering around 45% of the total online order market share.
The bun was light and fluffy and the chicken breast was the perfect thickness.
Chick-fil-A’s chicken breast was flakier as opposed to juicy. Looking at both of the sandwiches, the fillet itself also looked slightly bigger. The breading was thinner and clung to the chicken breast well, which gave it a great texture.
However, I was slightly disappointed by Chick-fil-A’s pickles — they didn’t have the strong briny flavor or crunchiness I usually look for.
Next up was the newcomer: the McDonald’s crispy chicken sandwich.
The McDonald’s crispy chicken sandwich cost $5.99 at my local chain in Brooklyn, New York.
The chicken fillet was thick – right off the bat, it looked really similar to sandwiches I’ve had from other chains.
I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s McChicken sandwiches for years, but I could already tell that I was going to like this sandwich a lot more.
The sandwich came with a few whole pickle chips on top of the chicken fillet.
The bun held the contents of the sandwich together perfectly, and in terms of size, I thought McDonald’s did a great job at nailing the bun-to-chicken ratio.
Biting in, I was immediately impressed.
The breading of the sandwich had a slight sweetness to it. However, it was perfectly balanced out by the tart, crunchy pickles, which had a strong briny flavor. The chicken was thick, juicy, and flavorful.
The only aspect of the sandwich I wasn’t totally in love with was the bun — though it was a good size, I thought it was slightly too thick. I’m of the opinion that a sandwich bun’s sole purpose is to hold everything together, without overpowering the other ingredients. I think this thicker potato bun slightly missed the mark on that.
It was really hard to say which one I liked more. However, I have to give props where props are due – McDonald’s has come out with an undeniably good chicken sandwich.
So, how similar were the two sandwiches? Pretty similar, in my opinion. If I was to do a blind taste test, I might not even know which was which, unless one was slathered in Chick-fil-A sauce. However, this is not to say that McDonald’s is in any way actively trying to copy or imitate Chick-fil-A’s most iconic offering.
The fact is that there is a trend in what consumers across the board are looking for in a chicken sandwich, whether they’re ordering from Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Popeyes, or any other chain.
Judging by the success of the chicken-war competitors, consumers want a Southern-inspired flavor with juicy, flavorful chicken and tart and crunchy pickles. McDonald’s definitely delivered on all counts.
As far as this food reporter is concerned, the new McDonald’s chicken sandwich stacks up well against fan favorites — and might even be a new go-to menu item.
Fast food brands have been competing in the red-hot chicken sandwich segment since August 2019, when Popeyes introduced a fried chicken sandwich. Online spats and snarky tweets quickly created a rivalry between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A in the months since.
But despite the ongoing competition between the two top chicken sandwich chains, Chick-fil-A has been the nearly undisputed winner in online orders for nearly two years. The chain’s streak was only broken briefly in January 2020, when Popeyes overtook it in market share, according to data from Edison Trends.
In December 2020, the most recent month Edison has data for, Chick-fil-A was the clear winner with 45% of online order market share. Popeyes was a distant second with 17%, only barely beating McDonald’s 16%.
The top four restaurants, Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, McDonald’s, and Wendy’s, have all maintained their rankings since February 2020, but the introduction of several new chicken sandwich menu items has the potential to shake up the market in 2021.
The chicken sandwich fast food space is already crowded and growing, but there seems to be an appetite among consumers. Online spending on chicken sandwiches grew 420% between January 2019 and December 2020, according to Edison Trends.
Insider has reported that several chains gearing up to introduce competitors to Chick-fil-A and Popeyes, both of which sell crispy chicken sandwiches with pickles. In January, KFC introduced a crispy chicken sandwich at nine locations, available across the country by the end of February, and Jimmy John’s dropped its own version of the chicken sandwich in a Super Bowl ad.Burger King announced a new chicken sandwich coming later this year, and McDonald’s is bringing its own entry this month. Shake Shack is launching a limited-edition chicken sandwich collab in Houston, and even Taco Bell announced a chicken sandwich taco coming later this year.
Taco Bell is becoming an unexpected participant in the chicken sandwich wars with a new Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco.
The hybrid menu item will first be available in Nashville, Tennessee and Charlotte, North Carolina beginning March 11, with a planned nation-wide rollout later this year. The Sandwich Tacos will retail for $2.49.
The chain is calling the new item “disruptive,” insisting it’s both a sandwich and a taco. It comes with white meat chicken marinated in jalapeno buttermilk, seasoned with spices, and rolled in tortilla chip coating. The chicken comes served in “puffy bread” folded into a taco shape with chipotle sauce.
Taco Bell will sell both regular and spicy versions. The spicy taco will come with jalapeno slices “for those who can take the heat,” the company says.
Taco Bell is joining the ranks of nearly every other major fast food player with a crispy chicken sandwich option.
Insider has reported on several chains gearing up to introduce competitors to Chick-fil-A and Popeyes, both of which sell crispy chicken sandwiches with pickles. In January, KFC introduced a crispy chicken sandwich at nine locations, available across the country by the end of February, and Jimmy John’s dropped its own version of the chicken sandwich in a Super Bowl ad.Burger King announced a new chicken sandwich coming later this year, and McDonald’s is bringing its own entry this month.
Taco Bell has been one of the most successful fast food chains throughout the pandemic of the last year. It cut more than a dozen items in 2020, including fan favorites like the seven-layer burrito and Mexican pizza. Despite outcry from fans last year, the leaner menu proved to be a smart decision as the chain shifted to more drive-thru orders, and sales grew 5% in the quarter following the menu change.
The company also teased that more chicken items are coming to the menu later this year, writing “Taco Bell fans everywhere will be excited to know this isn’t our only crispy chicken innovation arriving in 2021” in a statement.
McDonald’s is taking a clear aim at Chick-fil-A in the 2021 chicken sandwich wars, according to an internal memo viewed by Business Insider.
The fast-food giant will launch three chicken sandwiches, made with a new “thicker and juicier” chicken fillet, on February 24, McDonald’s confirmed to Business Insider. Advertising for the new and improved chicken sandwiches will roll out in early March.
If the sandwich sounds familiar, it might be because you’ve eaten Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwich, which also features the simple combination of a chicken fillet, pickles, and a buttered bun. For comparison, Popeyes tops sandwiches with mayo, as do most fast-food chicken sandwiches.
McDonald’s will also debut the Spicy Crispy Chicken sandwich, made with crinkle-cut pickles and new spicy pepper sauce, and the Deluxe Crispy Chicken sandwich, with tomatoes, shredded lettuce, and mayonnaise. (Chick-fil-A also serves a spicy sandwich, made with spicy seasoned chicken, and a deluxe sandwich, with tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, and American cheese.)
Here’s everything we know about the competitors in the 2021 chicken sandwich war
In November, McDonald’s announced plans to introduce the Crispy Chicken Sandwich in the US in early 2021.
“Developing a reputation for great chicken represents one of our highest aspirations,” McDonald’s head of its US business Joe Erlinger said at the time. “We want customers to choose McDonald’s for chicken because of the unique, craveable flavor that they can only get under the arches.”
McDonald’s isn’t the only chain gearing up for a battle of the chicken sandwiches in 2021. Here’s the lineup of chains that are testing sandwiches or have already rolled out an updated chicken sandwich:
Burger King was spotted testing a new chicken sandwich in October. UBS analyst Dennis Geiger said in a note in December that a 2021 chicken sandwich launch is sparking “notable optimism” among franchisees. (Burger King declined to give further details on the potential launch, saying in a statement: “The King must eat like a king. So, we’re constantly testing new items to satisfy his cravings.)
Zaxby’s is serving a new chicken sandwich in test locations and announced in December that the sandwich will roll out nationally in 2021. The chain tweeted in October: “the chicken sandwich war ain’t over yet.”
New sandwiches will have to compete with Chick-fil-A and Popeyes’ menu items
Two chains that haven’t made major chicken-related announcements are Chick-fil-A and Popeyes.
Chick-fil-A calls itself the home of the original chicken sandwich. Unsurprisingly, the chain hasn’t made any major updates to its classic sandwich in decades. As a private company, it is difficult to know how Chick-fil-A has fared financially in 2020 – but, as one of the industry leaders in drive-thru technology, it is likely thriving in the pandemic.
Popeyes, meanwhile, is still basking in the success of its 2019 chicken sandwich launch. In late October, parent company Restaurant Brands International reported that Popeyes sales were up 21.5% in the most recent quarter. Restaurant Brands International CEO José Cil said on a call with investors that the chicken sandwich continued to be “the largest single driver of sales growth.”
“This result comes on top of 10% comparable sales growth during the third quarter of 2019, which is when we initially launched the chicken sandwich in August,” Cil said. “Millions of people have been coming back for the chicken sandwich, but it’s been really exciting to still see a significant number of first-time purchasers in Q3.”
What does it all mean?
Industry insiders have been keeping a close eye on the chicken sandwich wars.
Steve Crichlow, founder of Compass Restaurant Consulting, wrote in a November report that increased competition will impact Popeyes’ “domination of the Chicken Sandwich market.”
“From what we have tested and heard (excluding McDonald’s version), we expect Wendy’s to have the biggest impact,” Crichlow wrote. “Not because it is better but rather because Wendy’s customers are very loyal to the Brand and those that might be currently going to Popeyes to get their Chicken Sandwich fix will come back to Wendy’s.”