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Chicken Sandwich: The Ultimate ComfortLock Icon

6 min read

Who can forget the Great Chicken Sandwich War of August 2019, in which a Popeyes tweet responding to a Chick-fil-A tweet responding to a Popeyes tweet launched a social media frenzy and a nationwide Popeyes chicken sandwich shortage?

They were simpler times. Literally. Since then, there’s been a pandemic and an economic collapse and a brutal presidential election.

Yet the chicken sandwich has prevailed, not in spite of these headwinds, but because of them. Why? Because fried chicken may be the ultimate comfort food. And we all need comfort now more than ever.

Sales in the chicken segment of the U.S. restaurant industry grew 9.9% in 2019, according to Technomic, a food industry consulting firm based in Chicago. Sales at all Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen restaurants soared 42% to $1.3 billion in the final quarter of 2019 compared with year-earlier figures, while same-store sales rose 34%. It had $3.81 billion in revenue in 2019.

And despite the pandemic, Popeyes’ same-store sales in the U.S. grew another 19.7% in third-quarter 2020.

In 2019, Chick-fil-A, the dominant player in the chicken segment, rose from No. 5 among all U.S. restaurant franchises to No. 3, according to Restaurant Business magazine’s annual rankings. With $11.32 billion in sales last year, it moved ahead of Taco Bell and Subway, though it remains far below second-place Starbucks ($21.38 billion) and first-place McDonald’s ($40.41 billion).

The continued popularity of the chicken sandwich in particular and fried boneless chicken in general has been felt throughout the country this year, signaling that the chicken sandwich war is far from over. Wendy’s debuted several chicken breakfast sandwiches early this year and has upgraded its classic chicken sandwich; McDonald’s plans a new crispy chicken sandwich early next year; and KFC, Zaxby’s and Church’s Chicken have all introduced new chicken sandwiches.

And late this month, Goldman Sachs announced that it was buying a “significant” stake in privately held Zaxby’s, an investment expected to fund more growth of the 900-unit chain.

How It Began

Which came first, the sandwich or the tweet? This riddle has an answer: the sandwich.

On Aug. 12, 2019, Popeyes, whose parent company, Restaurant Brands International also owns Burger King and Tim Horton’s in Canada, tweeted a photo of its new fried-chicken sandwich — its first chicken sandwich — accompanied by this copy: “Chicken. Brioche. Pickles. New. Sandwich. Popeyes. Nationwide. So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak. In. Complete. Sandwiches. I mean, sentences.”

A week later, on Aug. 19, Chick-fil-A, which lays claim to having invented the chicken sandwich, tweeted, “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the for the original.”

A few hours after that, Popeyes retweeted the Chick-fil-A tweet, adding, “… y’all good?”

And the social media war was on.

Other fast-food restaurants — and their fans — joined the fray, touting their own offerings. Among them was Arkansas’ own chicken chain, Slim Chickens, based in Fayetteville. Popeyes restaurants throughout the United States, including in Arkansas, sold out of its new sandwich.

The resulting publicity was a huge boon for Popeyes, a quick-service restaurant founded in 1972 and now based in Miami. That “… y’all good?” tweet earned 8 billion impressions worth $87 million, Restaurant Business magazine reported.

Popeyes moved into the top 20 largest U.S. restaurant chains, according to Technomic.

Chick-fil-A lays claim to inventing the fried chicken sandwich, but that’s strongly disputed.

The fried chicken sandwich has a long history in America, Psyche Williams-Forson, associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, told Arkansas Business. “It’s convenient. It’s tasty. It travels well,” she said.

“Maya Angelou and so many others in African American folklore have told stories of being, for example, in a situation of traveling and a Pullman porter would come and bring her a chicken sandwich or something like that,” Williams-Forson said. “In that way, perhaps, she knew that she was safe on the journey.” In such a way, food becomes a symbol not only of comfort but of safety.

Lauren Hallow, senior manager of consumer insights at Technomic, cited three “need states” that fried chicken satisfies: It’s familiar, it’s affordable and it’s a treat. It’s a treat because it’s tasty but also because not everyone feels comfortable frying chicken at home. It’s a food that some prefer to leave to the preparation of professionals.

Technomic is seeing an increased emphasis in the restaurant industry not just on chicken sandwiches but on chicken in general, Hallow said, citing Wingstop, based in Dallas, and Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers, headquartered in Baton Rouge.

Raising Cane’s has made inroads in Arkansas during the last five years, having launched five restaurants in northwest Arkansas, one in North Little Rock and one at 620 S. University Ave. in Little Rock, which opened just last week.

Matt Massey, regional vice president of Raising Cane’s, emphasized in an interview that “we have not entered the sandwich wars,” despite offering a chicken sandwich featuring three of the restaurant’s chicken tenders.

“It has been a very interesting and entertaining thing to watch and there have been some wonderful competitors,” he said. “We believe we have one of the best chicken sandwiches out there.”

Raising Cane’s has a limited menu, with a laser-like focus on its chicken tenders and just three sides — fries, cole slaw and Texas toast. It’s the Cane’s sauce that helps set the chain apart from its competitors, and Raising Cane’s boasts that the chicken breast tenderloins used for its tenders are never frozen and hand-breaded fresh for every order.

“We do what we do, and we do it well,” Massey said.

Technomic estimates Raising Cane’s sales in 2019 at $1.47 billion.

Closer to home, Tom Gordon, co-founder and CEO of Slim Chickens, told Arkansas Business the chain competes “with everybody, and everybody who takes money for food is a competitor with us.” But in the chicken segment, he cites Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, Zaxby’s and Raising Cane’s as rivals.

“We’re confident in the products that we have and the service we provide so we don’t change strategy or get knocked off our rails for any competition. We pay attention certainly, but you got to run your own game and play by the rules you set for yourself. That’s how you win.”

Slim Chickens reported $122 million in revenue last year and opened its 116th restaurant earlier this month.

And earlier this month, Arkansas Business reported that JTJ Restaurants of Little Rock, the restaurant group owned by the Keet family, is starting a joint venture to bring up to 20 Waldo’s Chicken & Beer restaurants to Arkansas and Oklahoma. Jim Keet called Waldo’s chicken “the best fried chicken I’ve ever had in my life.” (But Don’t Look for Waldo’s in West Little Rock just yet.)

Menu Stats, Based on Growth From Q3 2019 to Q3 2020


Chicken mentions on menus


The number of chicken sandwiches on menus


The number of chicken strips/nuggets entrees on menus


The number of fried chicken entrees on menus


92.3% of operators menu chicken



(quick-service/fast-food and fast-casual)

Chicken mentions on menus


The number of chicken sandwiches on menus


The number of chicken strips/nuggets entrees on menus


The number of fried chicken entrees on menus


Source: Technomic Ignite Menu database

Chicken Is a Comfort Food

Hallow, at Technomic, and Douglas Stuchel, an associate professor of food and beverage management at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, said the pandemic has helped propel the popularity of chicken. “In a pandemic, everyone is looking for comfort,” Hallow said.

The data appear to bear this out. Food delivery orders have soared in the last quarter, according to the NPD Group, and delivery service DoorDash, which commands 49% of the delivery market, reported this month that the top two food items ordered on its app from Jan. 1 through Oct. 31 were 1) chicken fingers and fries and 2) fried chicken sandwiches.

Stuchel noted that the “younger generation has grown up eating chicken nuggets. The chicken sandwich is the next logical step for them.”

And then there is the ultimate argument for the ascendancy of fried chicken in whatever form, as voiced by Professor Williams-Forson:

“Fried chicken is good. And that’s one of the things amidst everything that we talk about and analyze, we probably very seldom talk about taste and that people like, you know, the taste of fried chicken.”

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