The Chicken War’s Strain on Supply

As fast food chains battle for the best chicken sandwich, poultry is in high demand.

The chicken war began in the summer of 2019 when Popeyes launched its chicken sandwich. Months later, the chain is still reaping the benefits. According to a report from, on Jan. 17, visits rose 59.3% above the baseline for the period between Jan. 1, 2017 and Jan. 20, 2020. Analyzing that same period, every week in January has come in at least 20% or more above the baseline for weekly traffic.

While Popeyes trailed its poultry rival KFC throughout 2017, 2018, and most of 2019, the new product put it on nearly equal footing with its competitor. Popeyes’ traffic even surpassed KFC’s nationwide in December and early January.

In late January, McDonald’s revealed it was adding chicken to its breakfast menu. Items include a Chicken McGriddle and the McChicken Biscuit sandwich, reported CNBC. The menu penetration of fried chicken breakfast sandwiches surged 257% over the last four years, according to Datassential. The trend comes as consumers look to eat more protein, as chicken’s neutral flavor works well with most formats.

“The protein lends itself to multiple forms, and I think that it literally just is people getting more creative in what they eat for breakfast,” said Ken Harris, managing partner at Cadent Consulting Group. He also noted consumers may perceive chicken as healthier than sausage or bacon, even if not necessarily the case.

McDonald’s is also considering adding more chicken to its regular menu. It is testing a Crispy Chicken Sandwich in Knoxville, TN, and Houston that resembles Chick-fil-A’s signature chicken sandwich. In addition, it is testing a Chicken Parmigiana Burger, a Chicken Schnitzel Burger, and Spicy Shaker Tenders in Australia, reported Delish.

However, JPMorgan analysts believe McDonald’s will have a hard time competing with Popeyes and Chick-fil-A for operational reasons, reported MarketWatch. The analysts think McDonald’s is limited in the type of product it can use to compete in the ongoing chicken sandwich war, and that will hurt the fast food giant.

“To us, this means a fast-executed-from-frozen product that will not be able to fully meet the fresh product started with Popeyes or Chick-fil-A,” analysts wrote in a note.

Nearly 90% of McDonald’s U.S. franchisees believe Chick-fil-A is the chain’s biggest threat, according to a survey conducted by analyst Mark Kalinowski of Kalinowski Equity Research. Meanwhile, the chicken sandwich war boosted demand for smaller birds, reported Bloomberg. Chicken breasts from small birds reached triple the cost of breasts from 9-lb. birds, according to commodity researcher Urner Barry. The smaller, premium-quality chickens are said to have more flavor, while saving restaurants time on cutting and trimming.

“Consumers don’t want tough and tasteless big chickens,” said Scott Sechler, owner of poultry producer Bell & Evans.

Popeyes said the demand for its new sandwich last summer was so overwhelming it ran through what it thought would be several months of supply in 14 days, while Chick-fil-A total sales rose 13% in 2019, boosted by its fried-chicken sandwich. In 2019, through Nov. 16, the poultry industry raised 10% more birds above 7.76 lbs. than it did in the same period in 2018, according to Urner Barry.

There could be a new chicken coming to the market soon to help with demand. Cooks Venture raised $4 million from Golden West Food Group (GWFG) to ramp up distribution of its Pioneer chicken, reported TechCrunch. According to the company, the chickens are higher in omega-3s, their digestive tract can handle eating a highly diverse diet, and they can be raised in about two months—meaning the chickens are truly free range.

Through the partnership with GWFG, Cooks can start to ramp up commercialization of its chickens, which are currently sold through some retailers on the Cooks website and on Fresh Direct.