The chicken sandwich wars commenced in the summer of 2019 after Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen launched a New Orleans-style fried chicken sandwich and began taunting Chick-fil-A on Twitter. Not to be outdone, Chick-fil-A tweeted back and retaliated with a new grilled spicy chicken sandwich. Soon the gloves were off with McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell touting their own hot, crispy—and often spicy—chicken on a bun. The battle generated nationwide publicity and boosted consumer cravings for fried chicken on a bun.
It was about that time that Kwik Trip, the LaCrosse, Wisconsin, retailer, added a fried chicken sandwich to its menu in more than 500 of its 700 stores.
“No doubt that Popeyes and McDonald’s brought good attention to this sandwich nationally,” said Paul Servais, director, retail foodservice, Kwik Trip. The chain already had a fresh, hand-breaded fried chicken program featuring bone-in pieces and tenders, so “it seemed that the next logical item was a quality fried chicken sandwich.”
Today, the sandwich and its accessories—mashed potatoes with gravy, potato wedges, macaroni and cheese—are a big hit with Kwik Trip customers, and fried wings will be available soon. “It was one of the easier things we’ve done,” he said of the program.
The appeal of chicken is nothing new. In 1992, chicken overtook beef as the most-consumed meat per capita in America, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and in 2020, consumers bought 1.4 billion more units of chicken than beef in grocery stores, according to NielsenIQ.
Last year, chicken sandwiches (both breaded and grilled) were included in 6.7% of all U.S. restaurant orders for roughly 3.5 billion servings, according to the NPD Group. Sales of breaded chicken sandwiches jumped 8% last year versus 2019. That’s an impressive figure considering the double-digit decline in total restaurant visits during the pandemic, and the trend continues. According to NPD, about 65% of the U.S. population ordered a breaded chicken sandwich from a QSR in the past six months.
As a bonus to foodservice operators, chicken sandwiches are typically more profitable than beef sandwiches because they draw on a cheaper commodity, reports industry research firm Revenue Management Solutions. Plus, they’re usually priced below burgers on a menu, which helps attract budget-minded shoppers.
GPM Investments, a subsidiary of Richmond, Virginia-based ARKO Corp., in April added a fried chicken filet sandwich to its value menu at 150 stores. “We’re always looking for new ways to meet the needs of our customers,” said Ray Zeiher, senior category manager, foodservice. “We’re looking forward to this new chicken sandwich offering and continuing to grow and evolve our value menu,” which launched last summer.
The Market, the gourmet-to-go convenience chain owned by Tiger Fuel of Charlottesville, Virginia, has offered rotisserie chicken and other upscale foods since 1991. “We have our own niche in Charlottesville for quality deli products and foods, and in 2019, we wanted our own rendition of the chicken sandwich, but with local flair,” said Pat Pitts, foodservice manager, Tiger Fuel. “We felt that the fried chicken program was something that we could add to our markets to diversify our brand and to give loyal customers another layer of food options to choose from.”
So, the chain created the Chicken Fried Cville: “Spicy fried chicken tenders, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onions with locally made Bone Doctors Sweet n’ Spicy Barbeque Sauce on a brioche bun,” said Pitts.
“Our customers love our chicken program—hot, right out of the fryer, fresh chicken tender sandwiches and meals,” Pitts said. “We plan to add new creations for a variety of fried chicken sandwiches to give customers even more options.”
Considering a chicken sandwich offering? Pitts advises retailers to “do your homework. There are many options to consider: batters, washes, equipment and menu. And map out your program based on kitchen size, equipment and menu.”
Retailers who don’t care to create their own chicken offering from scratch can call on one of the turnkey programs available. That strategy has worked well for Love’s Travel Stops, based in Oklahoma City. Love’s is the largest franchisee of Chester’s Chicken, a QSR concept found inside convenience stores, truck stops and supermarkets nationwide. The program is currently in 130 Love’s locations.
“Our standard program is bone-in chicken and tenders, but our sandwich has been a permanent menu item since 2019,” said William Culpepper, vice president of marketing for Chester’s. “By accident, we launched our sandwich the same week as Popeyes. It was great for us because the awareness of chicken sandwiches went through the roof.”
The Chester’s kitchen requires a minimum of 500 square feet and necessary equipment, including warming cases, commercial fryers, a refrigerator and freezer. An oven is required for cooking biscuits and a rethermalizer for heating side dishes. A bread-and-batter table is used to bread the chicken pieces twice before they go in the fryer.
“These days, consumers expect a lot more out of c-store foodservice,” Culpepper said. “Our sandwich is a good product and can stand up next to McDonald’s or Popeyes.”
Another branded concept is Krispy Krunchy Chicken, which was launched in 1989 when founder Neal Onebane began cooking chicken in his Lafayette, Louisiana, convenience store. Today, the fried fowl is found in more than 2,400 locations. The company provides everything needed for a complete program, from ingredients and signage to tailored graphics and on-site training but doesn’t charge franchise or royalty fees.
Take My Chicken, Please
The Popeyes tweet-a-thon was great for business, but there are other ways to get a chicken sandwich in front of potential customers.
When Spinx, the Greenville, South Carolina, retailer with 80-plus stores, was growing its foodservice program, management “envisioned using a food truck as a mobile advertisement for our fresh and legendary chicken tender program,” said Jim Weber, chief marketing officer and executive vice president of merchandising.
The result was the Cluk Truk, a rolling kitchen created eight months ago to attend business, community and school and fundraising events on request. “These types of events have been very productive during a social distancing environment as we can safely deliver a hot, fresh and portable meal right to the customer,” said Weber. “It’s been a great addition to the marketing efforts. The Truk goes out five or six days a week, and we typically serve 50 to 100 meals per event.”
The Cluk Truk sells a scaled-down version of the same chicken tender products prepared in Spinx stores. Customers can order a la carte sandwiches, tender baskets or combo meals with hot fries and a drink. “Our tenders on the Truk are available in original recipe, spicy or buffalo style,” said Weber. “We think this will be a good venue for us to test market new items to the public.”
Weber admits the Cluk Truk is an expensive weapon in the chicken sandwich wars, but “as for ROI, we think that it is working well toward our expectations,” he said. “We viewed this project as a marketing initiative from the start and budgeted for the Truk in the marketing expense arena. This approach has led us to find a consistency in operations, as well as the flexibility to tackle the many varied requests, like charitable events and private functions.”