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Chicken Sandwich War! What Is it Good For?! (Lunch, Absolutely)

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Burger King’s hand-breaded chicken sandwich, coming later in 2021.

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”

We do not know whether many of today’s QSR executives have studied the words of Winston Churchill (although I guess we could ask), nor whether Churchill himself ever enjoyed a fried chicken sandwich (washed down with one of his famously dry martinis, possibly). But we do know the great statesman’s words are proving to be (more or less) prophetic in the escalating Chicken Sandwich War now engulfing drive-thrus and curbsides across our nation.

Unforeseeable? Did Popeyes foresee the fierce and (almost) uncontrollable blowback that would greet the reveal of its latest secret weapon? (Probably.) And, OK, their latest “chicken sandwich” is actually their Cajun Flounder Sandwich. But that just shows what Churchill’s “war fever” can do to a brand manager’s mind in the heat of battle.

Burger King and Wendy’s are among the other big players to have caught the fever. Both recently announced their latest salvos in this war, while A&W, supported by its vast reserves of root beer, revealed it was going asymmetric in the conflict.

“Textbook supply-and-demand-driven product improvements: the invisible hand-breading of the market.”

For veteran industry observer Charlie Hopper, all this deep-fried warfare calls to mind another great thinker from history. “This is the best of all possible capitalistic worlds — this is what Adam Smith was writing about in ‘The Wealth of Nations,’ this Chicken Sandwich War,” Hopper, a principal and writer with advertising and marketing firm Young & Laramore, told us. “The consumer benefits from increased competition between available vendors, quality goes up and presumably/eventually there’s pressure on prices that work in the eater’s favor. Textbook supply-and-demand-driven product improvements: the invisible hand-breading of the market.”

Let’s Hear from the Combatants

“While everyone else is playing catch up and distracting consumers with stale chicken drops, we are listening and bringing exciting flavors and bold ingredients forward to help fans avoid the ‘McStake’ of settling for the same boring chicken sandwiches from other fast-food joints,” Carl Loredo, Wendy’s chief marketing officer, declared this week in a dispatch from the battlefront. “Our new Jalapeño Popper Chicken Sandwich casts a big shadow across the competition and really delivers an enhanced chicken sandwich experience. The innovation on flavor is unlike anything else out there.”

Not to be outmaneuvered, Burger King fired back the very same day with news that it would launch a new chicken sandwich “later this year.” Why the wait? “What if hand-breading were to chicken what flame-grilling is to burgers? That’s been our guiding filter to bring a delicious chicken sandwich to guests in a way only BK can,” said Ellie Doty, Burger King North America chief marketing officer. “We’ll take the time to get it right and our guests will definitely taste the difference.”

“Let’s put a stop to this never-ending Chicken Sandwich War.”

Complicating matters (maybe), A&W responded to Popeye’s bold flounder gambit by declaring, “Let’s put a stop to this never-ending Chicken Sandwich War.” But don’t be fooled into thinking A&W is run by a cadre of peaceniks: The chain launched a guerilla-style attack just before Valentine’s Day to promote its hand-breaded chicken tenders. It bolstered its strategy with giveaways of a “Hand-Breaded Chicken Tender Body Pillow” and “Tender Lovin’ Lip Balm made with actual A&W fryer oil.” War is Hell, indeed.

“Who will be the next to try and raise the game, to up the ante?” Hopper mused. “Wendy’s has a lot of interest here, there’s always McDonald’s, and then there’s a lot of places [like Popeye’s] that could get in the game — where’s Zaxby’s in all this, or Arby’s? They can’t just have ‘Another Chicken Sandwich.’ To get into this war, they have to figure out something remarkable.”

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