The Chicken Sandwich War


American food franchises have never been afraid of some friendly, or even hostile, public competition. Way back in the 20th century, the Cola Wars between soft drink producers PepsiCo and the Coca-Cola Company were fought in back-and-forth ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements, including the infamous Rock and Roller Cola Wars, which featured Michael Jackson vouching for Pepsi and Ray Charles supporting Coke, among others. The year 2014 marked a milestone in the Breakfast Wars, as Taco Bell rolled out its long-awaited breakfast menu to challenge McDonald’s dominance in the field. The competition has become more complicated since then, with Wendy’s, Burger King, Dunkin’, Starbucks, and Panera each expanding their breakfast options during the pandemic. Rival chains often targeted each other and certain items have reached sensational status, but hysteria and chaos were generally not part of the game . . . until chicken got involved.

In August 2019, Popeyes introduced a fried chicken sandwich to their menu. This was nothing groundbreaking, just a chicken chain offering a chicken sandwich, but this particular Southern-style sammie became an instant hit. Popeyes’ immediate success prompted their rivals Chick-fil-A to tweet a friendly reminder that their chicken sandwich predated that of Popeyes. And thus, a popular item became a sensation online and in fast food establishments across the nation. Huge lines of hungry customers formed. They waited for hours for a bite of that delicious, juicy chicken, encased in a crispy breaded shell and served up with a crunchy pickle on a buttery brioche bun. By September, restaurants were sold out of the sandwiches and people were pulling guns and filing lawsuits in an attempt to get their hands on one. Rapper Quavo from the group Migos even jumped on the bandwagon with a trunk full of fast food loot being offered (in jest) at exorbitant prices.

Popeyes recognized their smash hit, which brought them a 38% jump in sales in the 4th quarter, but so did everybody else. In the next months, more than twenty fast food chains introduced their variation of the fried chicken sandwich in an attempt to capitalize on the frenzy. Golden Chick, KFC, and Fatburger quickly released their new creations. Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s revamped their chicken options and launched new ad campaigns. Church’s, Zaxby’s, BurgerFi, and Fuku jumped on the bandwagon. Carl’s Jr., Sonic, Shake-Shack, Boston Market, Jack in the Box (still a thing?), McDonald’s, and Pollo Campero all debuted their take on the classic, some with more creativity (and, as you might expect, oddity) than others. Burger King’s elongated sandwich design was overshadowed by its consistently rubbery chicken. (They still have not given up though, having just launched their International American, Italian, and Mexican Chicken Sandwiches.) Shake Shack’s Korean-Style Fried Chick’n Sandwich, with gochujang sauce and kimchi slaw, was criticized across the board for issues from its lack of crunch to the seemingly blatant cultural appropriation that went into its creation. Wendy’s and McDonald’s each stayed classic for their versions and were rewarded with a new menu staple that lasts to today. KFC, on the other hand, the king of chicken in the minds of some, took longer to find the perfect recipe, even with their secret blend of herbs and spices. In my opinion, the best fried chicken sandwich you can buy has got to be Popeyes’. Their authentic, juicy chicken breasts surpass all other contenders in consistency and flavor, even if they lack symmetry. The pickles are always crispy, and both the regular mayo and spicy mayo compliment the chicken perfectly: truly the pinnacle of the craft.

In the past few months, Taco Bell has featured a Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco, decked with creamy chipotle sauce and jalapeños. The item is regional and has been off and on menus, but generally has been expanding in popularity. At this point, there is not much of an argument to be made that Taco Bell should be trying to keep any semblance of a commitment to authentic Mexican cuisine. Nevertheless, this is a step too far for the fast food chain. Not to worry, chances are that the item will be gone by next month. Today, Chick-fil-A continues to dominate the fried chicken scene across the nation. Fierce competition with Popeyes still remains in certain areas, but it is McDonald’s who actually holds the runner-up spot in chicken sandwich sales, which is no surprise. After all, when you’re in line for a Big Mac, it always feels good to make the right choice and switch to the much healthier battered and deep fried chicken covered in spicy mayo. You want fries with that?