One of the fiercest food-world fights in recent years has featured fast-food chains vying for supremacy over who can most successfully serve up a fried breast of chicken between two pieces of bread. This week, the battle will heat up again as McDonald's finally enters the fray with its own take on the crispy chicken sandwich.
On Wednesday, McDonald's is releasing three versions: original, spicy and deluxe, with lettuce and tomato.
McDonald's knows burgers. Its Big Mac is recognized all around the globe. But the Golden Arches is years behind its peers in developing a truly competitive chicken sandwich, much to the frustration of many of its franchise owners.
"We've been clamoring for it," said Blake Casper, who owns dozens of McDonald's restaurants in Florida and is chairman of the National Owners Association, an independent group of franchisees. "We've definitely been needing this focus on a chicken sandwich. We're thrilled that we're finally getting very serious about this category."
In recent years, American fast-food customers have embraced chicken and, in particular, so-called Southern-style chicken sandwiches. Consumers in the United States ordered 2.6 billion of the crispy, juicy sandwiches last year, according to the NPD Group, a research firm. Fried chicken sandwiches were the second-most ordered item on the DoorDash platform, just behind chicken fingers, last year.
A bevy of fast-food restaurants — Wendy's, Burger King, Shake Shack — have jumped on the crispy chicken-sandwich bandwagon, releasing or making plans to release new chicken sandwiches. Even Taco Bell is riding the wave, debuting a combination chicken sandwich/taco next month in limited markets.
For years, the leader of the category was Chick-fil-A, which created its original chicken sandwich — with two pickles and a toasted, buttered bun — in 1964.
Privately held and based in Atlanta, Chick-fil-A posted sales of $11 billion in 2019, according to an annual ranking of restaurant chains by QSR Magazine. That was dwarfed by McDonald's $40 billion in U.S. systemwide sales that year, but the 2,500 Chick-fil-A franchise locations around the country averaged more than $4.5 million in sales in 2019. That's well above the average sales of $2.9 million for the nearly 14,000 McDonald's restaurants in the United States — and is even more impressive given the fact that Chick-fil-A stores are closed Sundays.
But the chicken-sandwich battle really started in the summer of 2019, when Popeyes introduced its own fried-chicken sandwich (brioche bun, with pickles). Within days, Popeyes locations around the country saw lines stretched out their doors, and the sandwich became a viral knockout. It became so popular that the chain sold out of months of supply within two weeks and had to pull the sandwich from its menu for more than two months to secure ingredients and negotiate with its suppliers.
Thanks in large part to the popularity of its chicken sandwich, Popeyes' comparable-store sales grew nearly 18% in 2020 from the year before, compared with an 11% decline at Burger King. Burger King, which, like Popeyes, is owned by Restaurant Brands International, is introducing its own take on the crispy chicken sandwich this year.
McDonald's journey into chicken sandwiches dates to 2008, when it introduced the Southern Style Chicken Sandwich. That was a fried chicken fillet served on a hamburger bun with pickles, an offering some said looked suspiciously like Chick-fil-A's signature sandwich. The McDonald's version was discontinued in 2015.
About four years ago, executives at McDonald's decided it was time to try again.
Using the Southern Style Chicken sandwich as a starting point, chefs and a handful of franchise owners began weekly visits to the company's kitchens in Chicago to meet with suppliers.
First came the chicken breast. "We looked at the Southern Chicken sandwich and knew it had to be modernized, reimagined from how it was," said John Link, who began working at McDonald's 50 years ago when he was 15 and today owns 13 restaurants in the Hickory, North Carolina, area.
"We would have 10 different profiles of sandwiches on a big table, and we would take a bite and then rank the sandwiches," Link said. "We narrowed it down to two fillets. The suppliers were there and listened to what we were saying. I probably took six or eight trips to Chicago working on that fillet, just to get it right."
After the fillet, the focus turned to the bun. Fifteen to 20 varieties of buns and rolls were considered. More sandwiches were made and taste-tested. "It was tons of buns," Link said.
Ultimately, McDonald's decided, for the first time, to use a potato roll for one of its sandwiches. The roll is toasted with a creamy butter, dispensed through new warmers that are being installed in the restaurants.
"It's sweet and buttery, a really nice complement to the savory of the chicken," said Linda VanGosen, head of U.S. menu strategy at McDonald's.
Last, but not least, came the two pickles. "I learned a lot about pickles," Link said with a laugh, explaining that the crinkle-cut pickle McDonald's uses means more crunch and more pickle flavor on the sandwich.
Instead of the cardboard boxes that McDonald's uses for most of its sandwiches, the original Crispy Chicken sandwich and the spicy version will be served in a foil bag.
By late 2019, the new chicken sandwich was being tested in restaurants in Houston and Knoxville, Tennessee. After successful test runs, plans were set to release the sandwiches in the summer. But those plans were sidelined as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the country and franchise owners were focused on keeping their doors open and employees safe.
"Our attention needed to be on serving our customers," VanGosen said. "It was just not the right time to launch."
Link said the sandwich would be worth the wait.
"I'm pretty passionate about chicken. Being from the South, I eat a lot of chicken," he said. "I wanted a sandwich that, when I ate that sandwich, I wanted to take another bite."