Fried chicken sandwiches are having a moment in the QSR world—but what’s fueling their popularity?
Kentucky Fried ChickenFor decades, a burger and fries have been the fast-food paradigm, but lately, the lines, the Instagrams and the hype surrounding all of these Southern-inspired launches have spread the fried chicken fever. It all points to a growing trend in quick-service restaurant menus—2016 is the year of fried chicken sandwiches.
“When I was in high school, the going rate at lunch for a fried chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A was three bags of Doritos. Highly prized eating in my native South—and for good reason: Chick-fil-A was the only name in the chicken-sandwich kingdom,” said Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit’s restaurant editor. “Fast-forward 25 years, and suddenly I’m reveling in the crunchy, juicy, golden age of the fried chicken sandwich. My childhood friend has become a national star, everywhere from David Chang’s Fuku to Danny Meyer’s Shake Shacks, where the debut of the Chick’n Shack caused the social-media version of a riot. My only question is: What took y’all so long?”
It’s little wonder, then, that fast-food chains like Burger King, Wendy’s, Dairy Queen and McDonald’s are trying there hand at poultry in a big way, even as a couple of heavy hitters already well-known for their bird are enjoying a growth spurt—such as Chick-fil-A, KFC and Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.
So just how popular is chicken? According to research done by the NPD group, chicken is a faster-growing segment than burgers in fast food. Chicken entrees grew three percent to $5.4 billion in 2015. In contrast, burger servings ticked only 1 percent higher to $7.9 billion. Consider Chick-fil-A, for example—this chain became the No. 1 fast-food outlet in the U.S. in average sales per store as of 2012, tallying $3.1 million per location, versus $2.6 million for McDonald’s and $1.2 million for Burger King.
Economics are just one reason for chicken’s rise in popularity. A look at the most recent Bureau of Labor consumer price index shows that at the consumer level, chicken prices have remained steady or slightly declined over the past 12 months. This is compared to beef, whose prices have gone up some 10 percent in the same time. The initial shift from chicken to beef began to take hold in 2010, when beef prices spiked. The Wall Street Journal reported that in April 2010, wholesale prices for 90 percent lean boneless beef were up a startling 32 percent from a year ago. That increase pushed many burger chains to explore non-beef alternatives.
Other experts believe that the fried chicken sandwich trend boils down to something much simpler—nostalgia. Fried chicken has long been part of the culinary fabric in the South. At some point, this cuisine was put beneath the foodie lens, and the conversation behind fried chicken became somewhat artisanal, but still, it was nothing gourmet. Whereas the burger was accepted into the white-tablecloth world not that long ago, fried chicken didn’t necessarily get a change of scenery. This food remains a simple pleasure, but there’s a certain way to do it just right. There’s a wholesome care that goes behind the dish—it’s not just basic, it’s rooted in deep tradition. It’s tempting and delicious, too, and more and more restaurants are realizing a need for this soul-satisfying cuisine in a quick, innovative and convenient setting.
“I think it’s the next iconic American food that’s getting its due. Sort of like hamburgers and barbecue have been revived, celebrated and kicked up a notch, I think chiefs are doing the same thing now with fried chicken,” said Adeena Sussman, the author of Fried & True. “It’s the ultimate comfort food—whether it’s at a pop-up on the side of the street, at a supermarket or at a Popeye’s.”