Lizzy Freier, senior research manager of menu at Technomic, spoke with The Food Institute’s Susan Choi about the so-called chicken sandwich wars in the quick service restaurant segment, the impact of the pandemic on sales, and the prospects for menu innovation in the QSR space.
Technomic is a research and consulting firm servicing the food and foodservice industry.
Why has the chicken sandwich trend taken off in the QSR industry?
I think that the trend has been very entertaining, something very exciting to watch throughout the pandemic. And I think that the trend has really continued because [the] chicken sandwich is just so universal. Chicken is loved by all demographics. It’s featured across multiple cuisine types. And now across dayparts. We have it breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And really, it’s the ultimate comfort food. And it’s a blank slate for innovation.
It’s basically the perfect combination of simple and complex. You have ingredients and flavors that are simple, but it can be complex by way of textures and flavor profiles based off of sandwich toppings.
What other factors have spurred the chicken sandwich trend forward?
I think that the chicken sandwich is really an approachable, limited-time offer for innovation for operators. The chicken sandwich doesn’t require a lot of extra SKUs or equipment or training. Most QSRs have fryers in their kitchens, and they probably already purchased chicken and other ingredients that are typically added to these chicken sandwich limited time offers. And the buzz from Popeyes chicken sandwich really paved the way and created a lot more consumer demand and excitement for items like this.
Why do QSRs feel the need to come up with their own version?
I think that there are two things going on here with why fast-food chains really need to come out with their own sandwiches. First is that this is really a trend that basically any fast-food concept can hop on fairly quickly. Most of these restaurants are already sourcing some kind of fried chicken, or at least have fryers in their restaurants and source chicken. So, it’s not a huge lift to really get a new sauce on it and re-release it as part of the chicken wars. And second is that even though this is really framed as wars, this kind of competition is mutually beneficial for all parties involved.
At the end of the day, the important selling point is that you can try all of these different chicken sandwiches to see what’s best. And that really is beneficial for all of these fast-food chains involved. And if a restaurant is able to differentiate themselves by adding a unique ingredient, or sauce or bun, it may help eventually make an impact on sales or traffic for that operator chain, as well.
Are the chicken wars a passing fad or here to stay?
In terms of innovation, the message here is that you don’t have to create something crazy or super-out -of-the-box to stand out among all of the other limited-time offers in the market. You can produce an LTO with familiar ingredients that’s just prepared well, and it can still make an impact. And this is increasingly important right now as the pandemic has caused a lot of operators to streamline their menus. And while I think chicken sandwiches aren’t going away anytime soon, and will probably remain very popular, I think that the hype around these items will fade unless operators really start to level up. So again, going towards that idea of differentiating themselves in the market with a new sauce type or global condiment or something else in that realm. But also, the chicken sandwich hype may really help pave the way for another food war featuring another classic dish in the future.
I think that this is a passing fad for chicken sandwiches, but I do think that different iterations of the chicken sandwich might eventually pop up. And I do think that we’re going to continue to see different types of products come up.
Who is winning the chicken sandwich war?
I think Popeyes really has won. They have really maximized their buzz and were very much the trendsetters. From a business perspective, I think they help themselves a little bit more than others. And I think Popeye’s is the example that everyone still talks about. So, I think this really shows the importance of being first, or at least early to the market, with limited-time offers like this.
What makes for a good chicken sandwich?
I think the prerequisite is something that can drive a mass audience. Everybody is desiring comfort food right now. And I think that chicken sandwich absolutely falls in line with that. So, any type of descriptors that really elicit those mouthwatering reactions, I think will help. And that goes back to the idea of talking about it from a textural standpoint. You have a soft bun, paired with a crispy or crunchy chicken, you have pickles, which of course have that sour component paired with mayonnaise, which provides a little bit of a lighter note. Some of these offerings are a little bit spicy, as well. So of course that elicits a different mouthwatering reaction, too. So, I think the winners in this really provide those different flavor and textural components that will bring that comfort food aspect to consumers.
How has the pandemic impacted the chicken wars?
Especially during the pandemic, consumers have been sticking to restaurants that they know and love already, rather than venturing out to try new restaurants. So, these chicken wars have given operators the opportunity to drive incremental traffic during this time when consumers are more likely to stick to something that they know.
The pandemic is certainly creating a lot of discomfort right now for people. So, comfort food is definitely something that they’re looking for. And these chicken sandwiches definitely fall into that trend nicely.