Could a new version of the fast-food “chicken wars” play out in Clifton Park?
It’s possible, given town approval last week for the region’s first standalone Chick-fil-A restaurant near Clifton Park Center mall, just minutes by car from the Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen eatery that opened in Halfmoon in January.
Meantime, burger chains McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, which also have outlets in the same Route 146 commercial corridor off Northway Exit 9, have upped their chicken game, too.
It was Popeyes’ summer 2019 introduction of a crispy chicken sandwich – the Chick-fil-A hallmark – that drew consumer attention via Twitter posts by the two purveyors and started all the “wars” hubbub.
Popeyes’ limited-time-offer sandwiches quickly sold out, ringing up as many sales in two weeks as had been planned for the first month. But the buzz remained and the item became a menu standard, which the company says is responsible for an average $400,000 more in annual sales per Popeyes restaurant.
Popeyes and Chick-fil-A have similar one-man-roots stories that trace back five decades, Popeyes in New Orleans and Chick-fil-A in Atlanta.
Chick-fil-A, with more than 2,700 restaurants in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, has a broader menu than Popeyes, with salads and wraps in addition to multiple chicken sandwich, strips and nugget offerings. The same family, now in its third generation, has run the privately held company since inception. Trade publication QSR put 2021 revenue at $5.8 billion.
Popeyes, once a public company in its own right, now is part of publicly traded Restaurant Brands International, which also owns the Tim Hortons, Burger King and Firehouse Subs chains, and has operations worldwide. Popeyes’ store count was just over 3,700 at year-end 2021 (2,700 in the U.S.), with sales reported at $5.5 billion.
Not to be left behind, other quick-service chains jumped on the chicken bandwagon with new or improved crispy sandwiches in 2020 and 2021, according to a report from The Food Institute. Besides McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King, they included the likes of Jack in the Box, Fatburger, Carl’s Jr., Shake Shack and Sonic.
Even KFC, which ranked No. 2 by sales between Chick-fil-A and Popeyes in the chicken segment sub-rankings on the 2021 QSR 50 fast-food restaurants, introduced a crispy chicken sandwich last year.
Lizzy Freier, director of menu research and insight at consulting firm Technomic, told The Food Institute in a 2021 interview that the chicken wars provided not only a distraction to consumers during the coronavirus pandemic but also a new comfort food. (Technomic says 84% of consumers globally order chicken from a restaurant at least once a month.)
“The pandemic is certainly creating a lot of discomfort right now for people,” she said. “So comfort food is definitely something that they’re looking for. And these chicken sandwiches definitely fall into that trend nicely.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].