U.S. faces a chicken shortage, with many Americans still cooped up inside

McDonald’s is hoping 2021 is the year it finally cracks the chicken sandwich game by rolling out three different versions next month in an attempt to take on major competitors like Popeyes and Chick-fil-A for a share of the growing market.

And if sales so far are any indication, it just might be the year for the Golden Arches. It said Thursday that demand was ‘far exceeding’ its expectations.   

The chain today announced in January its plans to launch three varieties of a new crispy chicken sandwich – ‘classic’, ‘deluxe’ and ‘spicy’ – on February 24. All three will contain a new crispy white meat chicken fillet served with crinkle-cut pickles on a toasted, buttered potato roll.

McDonald’s launch came more than a year after Popeyes first turned the chicken sandwich into a viral sensation when it prompted mass hysteria with the release of its own version in August 2019.   

Since then, the chicken sandwich has become a source of furious debate and competition between major fast food chains.

Eat up! McDonald’s is finally set to join the chicken sandwich war next month when it launches three versions of the popular fast food dish – classic (right), deluxe (left), and spicy

Almost every big name eatery has attempted to take a piece of the pie, with places like KFC offering up revamped versions of its existing menu favorites, while others, including McDonald’s, rushed to release their own offering. 

According to Reuters, McDonald’s decision to lean in to the chicken sandwich trend comes as a result of the long-term popularity of its Chicken McNuggets, which have been a permanent menu item since the 1980s. In 2020, the chain released a limited run of Spicy Chicken McNuggets, which contributed to its highest September sales in nearly a decade.  

‘As commonplace as chicken is, it’s a growth area. You want to participate in that growth,’ said Mark Kalinowski, an independent restaurant equities analyst.

But to really ruffle feathers in the market, McDonald’s needs to overcome operational and structural hurdles, including a lack of pressure fryers, and prove wrong skeptics who doubt it can match sandwiches offered by pure poultry purveyors like KFC, Chick-fil-A and Popeyes.

Half a million chickens had to be put down at Sanderson Farms in Texas following a freak winter storm

Half a million chickens had to be put down at Sanderson Farms in Texas following a freak winter storm

‘I would bet big time that McDonald’s never competes in the chicken business,’ restaurant marketing consultant Chas Hermann said of the menu additions.

A social-media-fueled war between privately-owned Chick-fil-A and Popeyes raised the game for the fast-food industry after Popeyes launched its first-ever chicken sandwich in August 2019.

The Popeyes sandwich quickly sold out and drove sustained spikes in its comparable sales growth beginning that quarter, prompting other companies to try to follow its lead.

Chick-fil-A’s growth in the South also pressured McDonald’s franchisees there, who pushed for the new sandwiches.

‘They’ll definitely improve their chicken sandwich. It won’t win awards. They will have some of the very best marketing around it,’ Hermann added of the McDonald’s move.   

At least two dozen restaurant chains launched new or improved chicken sandwiches in 2020 even as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted supplies, workers and operations, trade publication Nation’s Restaurant News said.

If McDonald’s crispy chicken is successful, an average location could sell as many as 150 sandwiches per day, said Credit Suisse analyst Lauren Silberman.

By comparison, for a typical Burger King restaurant that 40 units of a new sandwich per day would be considered very successful, she said.

McDonald’s also needs to keep costs low to appeal to existing customers and compete with $4 sandwiches from rivals.

At its Investor Day on Novembver 9, McDonald’s USA President Joe Erlinger said the sandwich was a ‘jumping off point’ for an even broader ‘chicken platform’.

‘Our chicken-only competitors here and abroad have strong brand equity and credibility. Developing a reputation for great chicken represents one of our highest aspirations,’ he said.

The existing McChicken sandwich could also see new flavors, marketing and promotions, Erlinger said.

McDonald’s McNuggets, which are processed, battered, partly pre-cooked and frozen before shipping, are one thing. A fresh-tasting fillet to beat chains at their own game is another.

‘Trying to ensure large, thick pre-breaded chicken to 14,000 stores can be difficult,’ said former franchisee Jim Lewis.  

McDonald’s also lacks equipment used by poultry specialists – pressure cookers and hand-breading stations inside stores.

It is ‘very hard to do something with the equipment that they have and the complexity you have in the kitchen, it’s very hard to manage that,’ Restaurant Brands’ Chief Marketing Officer Fernando Machado said of McDonald’s.

Popeyes’ chicken is also marinated for 24 hours in the restaurant, he added.

‘If it were easy to do, we could do it at Burger King,’ he said of Restaurant Brands’ burger chain.

But McDonald’s huge scale could help it to achieve the kind of serious success that mirrors its poultry-focused competitors. 

There about 13,846 McDonald’s restaurants in the United States – about as many as all the Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, Yum-owned KFC, Church’s, Wingstop, Zaxby’s, Bojangles and El Pollo Loco locations combined.

‘Customers have to drive past two or three McDonald’s to get to a [Chick-fil-A] or a Popeyes,’ said Richard Adams, a consultant to franchisees. ‘That’s an opportunity to pull in those customers with a comparable product.’

However, the chain’s new sandwich launches will face furious competition against Popeyes’ own version, which debuted in August 2019 to much fanfare.

Diners went wild for the sandwich when it was first released, marking the first time in 45 years that the restaurant offered a sandwich. 

Restaurants almost immediately sold out of the in-demand sandwich, leaving furious customers complaining on social media.  

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