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McDonald’s Reignites Chicken Sandwich Wars with Challenge to Popeyes and Chick-fil-A

McDonald's announced this week the addition of three new chicken sandwich menu items, available nationwide in February.

Fast food chains have been rolling out several strategies in hopes of drawing traffic amid the COVID-19 pandemic, whether it be emphasizing breakfast, creating faster drive-thru lines or even partnering with celebrities. Now, McDonald’s latest strategy appears to be reigniting 2019’s chicken sandwich wars

On Monday, the chain announced it will introduce out three new chicken sandwich menu items on February 24. The sandwiches, available nationwide, include The Crispy Chicken Sandwich, topped with pickles and served on a potato roll, the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, which adds a spicy pepper sauce, and the Deluxe Chicken Sandwich, which comes with lettuce, tomatoes and mayo. 

The new strategy may be largely in response to the popularity of the brand’s limited-time Spicy McNuggets, which were rolled out in the fall and “contributed to September U.S. comparative sales that were the highest in nearly a decade,” according to The New York Post

"Globally, the chicken category is almost twice the size of beef," Joe Erlinger, president of McDonald's USA said during a November webcast for investors. "It is growing faster and represents a significant opportunity. Developing a reputation for great chicken represents one of our highest aspirations. We want customers to choose McDonald's for chicken."

Last year, even before the QSR industry watched Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A duke it out over who had the better chicken sandwich, McDonald’s franchisees expressed their frustration with not having a dog in the fight. 

“JFK called for a man on the moon. Our call should be a category leading chicken sandwich,” the independently-formed group of McDonald’s franchisees called the National Owners Association (NOA) wrote in a July 2019 letter — one month before Popeyes launched its viral chicken sandwich.

“Chick-fil-A’s results demonstrate the power of chicken,” the McDonald’s franchisees continued in the letter. “Yes, we have great Chicken McNuggets and our McChicken is a very good product. But we do not compete in the premium chicken sandwich category, either grilled or crispy.”

McDonald’s franchisees were right to be jealous — Popeyes has sold 203 million chicken sandwiches in the year since launching the sandwich and noted the menu item as a key to the brand’s impressive 2020 sales. In addition, Chick-fil-A has been ranked America’s favorite restaurant chain for six consecutive years based on the American Customer Satisfaction Index restaurant report.

Though McDonald’s wasn’t a main contender in the fight over fried chicken last year, the brand may actually have started the trend decades ago. In 1989, McDonald’s launched a national “country-style” McChicken sandwich that started a fight with Hardee’s, which was one of the largest fast food chains in the country at the time. 

“While McDonald`s is touting their new product, it isn’t even comparable to our Chicken Fillet Sandwich, which has been on the market since 1979,” Hardee’s president said at the time, according to a 1989 report from the Charlotte Observer with the headline, “Chicken sandwiches incite fast food war.”

Over the last 30 years since then, numerous fast-food chains have launched and relaunched iterations of chicken sandwiches, and McDonald’s is no exception. Now, the poultry competition may be heating up again due to the pandemic, in which franchisors are looking for any way to bring in new customers. Wendy's rolled out a new version of its chicken sandwich in October and KFC announced the KFC Chicken Sandwich in the summer

Still, McDonald’s may need to overcome operational hurdles, including a lack of pressure fryers, if it really hopes to dominate the chicken segment. McDonald’s would also have to be able to keep costs low in order to compete with the $4 offering of competitors. But, if the brand is able to pull it off, the results could be massive. 

“Customers have to drive past two or three McDonald’s to get to a (Chick-fil-A) or a Popeyes,” Richard Adams, a consultant to franchisees told The New York Post. “That’s an opportunity to pull in those customers with a comparable product.”