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There was a time, in late 2019, when the phrase “chicken wars” was being used widely, and it had nothing to do with kids trying to knock each other over in the pool. Rather, when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced a new fried chicken sandwich, consumers went wild, competitors fought back, and supply chains experienced vast disruption. Of course, that disruption was nothing compared with the upheaval due to COVID-19, but even in this era, the chicken wars rage on, attracting new combatants and competitors that in turn are bringing new weapons to the field.

Although Wendy’s already had a chicken sandwich, it has introduced a new, inexpensive option to its value menu. The relatively plain patty, more like a big chicken nugget, is dissimilar from the thicker, actual chicken breast that appears on the Popeyes sandwich that started the fight. But it also it substantially less expensive and possible to manufacture using conventional supply chains. Thus Wendy’s can satisfy consumers’ cravings for fried chicken in those cases when they don’t want to spend much and just want a basic sandwich.

Such cravings appear widespread. Even during the pandemic, when overall restaurant industry sales dropped by 24 percent, sales of fried chicken sandwiches rose, by 1.2 percent. There are a few possible explanations for this divergent trend. People who were attracted to try the offerings by the viral marketing associated with the initial chicken war might have adopted this behavior, such that they now order chicken instead of burgers when they seek out a fast-food fix. In addition, the pandemic arguably has increased consumers’ desire for comfort food, and fried chicken is an essential form. Delivery services such as Grubhub and DoorDash report that fried chicken dishes are among their most popular items, whether sourced from a fast-food chain or a full-service restaurant.

As these trends continue, more chains are joining the battle. McDonald’s has announced that its product development for a fried chicken sandwich is nearly complete, and KFC is adding yet another version to its menus, with thicker pickles and a larger piece of chicken. Thus the range of offerings available to consumers continues to expand and grow. The war continues. Whose side will consumers take?

Discussion Questions:

  1. If another fast-food restaurant decided to enter this market, how should it design and price its chicken sandwich to create a unique appeal for consumers?
  2. Considering current trends, would you argue that consumers want a fancy, high-quality fried chicken sandwich, or are they looking for an inexpensive patty? Or both?

Source: Emily Heil, “The Chicken Sandwich Wars Aren’t Over: Wendy’s Has a New Option, and McDonald’s Is About to Get In,” Washington Post, August 12, 2020