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How The Chicken Sandwich Wars Got Spicy and Became Chicken’s Defining Moment in 2019

As QSR and fast casual franchise brands competed to win over the hearts of chicken sandwich lovers, this year’s biggest happening in the sandwich segment was undoubtedly the Chicken Sandwich Wars.

In the world of the sandwich segment, 2019 may very well become known as the Year of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich.

It started innocently enough—the much-anticipated Popeyes Chicken Sandwich debuted in mid-August to immediate rave reviews from customers everywhere. Right away, Chick-fil-A started some serious Twitter beef with the brand over the resemblance to its own spicy chicken sandwich offering. As the demand grew and word spread, a Chicken Sandwich War within the QSR and sandwich segments began, with major players such as Wendy’s and McDonald’s throwing their hats in the ring. 

The viral QSR feud seemed to only stoke the flames of Popeye’s popularity, with the fast-food chicken restaurant selling about 1,000 chicken sandwiches per store, per day. The chicken sandwich sales also accounted for about 30% of Popeyes sales in the month it was available while store traffic doubled, according to an analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets.

Almost immediately after the release, Popeyes reported chicken sandwich shortages at select locations across the country. Users all over Twitter posted videos of long lines and sold-out notices as they struggled to get their hands on the elusive sandwich. In fact, a customer in Maryland even tried to sell one of the chicken sandwiches for $100 after his local Popeyes sold out. Of course, what goes up must come down, and the Popeye’s wave crashed hard. After only a week, Popeye’s tweeted that they had sold out of the viral sandwich. 

Popeyes wasn’t willing to give up on the popularity of the sandwich just yet, embarking on one more marketing campaign in which the chain encouraged customers to order a three-piece meal and make a sandwich with their own bun. To promote the idea, the brand has released a video showing perplexed customers grappling with the idea. 

2019’s spicy chicken sandwich sensation is a prime example of how social media is becoming one of the most powerful marketing tools available to franchise brands. Many brands in the sandwich segment and beyond are continuing to engage with a younger generation on Twitter and other platforms, with online promotional stunts leading to overwhelming demands and record sales. Time and time again, “likes” and “favorites” are equating to a lot more than just numbers on a screen.

Besides selling out, the Popeyes sandwich was one of the most successful fast-food product launches in recent memory. The franchise generated $65 million earned media value in the first two weeks after the launch, according to Apex Marketing Group, and even doubled its average store traffic. 

Regardless, the chicken sandwich trend is no joke—chicken sandwich servings ordered in the year ending February 2019 are up 4% from the same period a year ago, at 4 billion servings. By comparison, burger orders stayed flat from orders one year ago, at 8.6 billion. Whether 2019 will be known in the history books as the Year of the Chicken Sandwich, it was clearly the biggest trend within the sandwich segment of the foodservice industry.