Toward a unified theory of chicken sandwiches

Toward a unified theory of chicken sandwiches

Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Despite what you may have heard on Twitter, chicken sandwiches existed before Chick-fil-A sold its first sandwich in 1961. There was schnitzel. There was milanesa. There was katsu. There was Nashville hot chicken. There were even plain old fried chicken sandwiches: Donna Battle Pierce, writing for Ebony, found an ad in the Kansas Whip, Topeka’s Black newspaper, for a fried chicken sandwich special at Booker T’s Café... from 1936. Odds are that some hungry soul late one night long before that had the idea to put some leftover fried chicken between two slices of bread and garnish it with mayo and pickles. Those are pretty standard things to find in a fridge.

Popeyes was also not, despite what you may have heard, the first fast food joint to rip off the Chick-fil-A formula. McDonald’s introduced a “Southern-Style Chicken Sandwich” in 2005 and kept it on the menu for ten whole years. When it disappeared in 2015, nobody made a peep. Burger King had chicken sandwiches. Wendy’s had chicken sandwiches. KFC had chicken sandwiches. Hardee’s had chicken sandwiches. Culver’s had chicken sandwiches. Raising Cane’s had chicken sandwiches. Everybody had a goddamned chicken sandwich before August of 2019. I know: I’m not really that fond of fast food burgers, so I tried a lot of them.

So why did the fast food world go batshit insane in August 2019 when Popeyes introduced its chicken sandwich? Why are we now, nearly two years later, still in the midst of the chicken sandwich wars? Why does every fast food restaurant feel compelled to serve up a chicken sandwich with mayonnaise and pickles? Is there a deep, fundamental hunger that lies in all of us that only chicken sandwiches can fill? Here are some theories:

Theory #1: Supply and demand

No sooner did Popeyes introduce its chicken sandwich than it promptly ran out. There is nothing that makes people want something more than if they’re told they can’t have it. Sort of like every trendy toy at Christmas or COVID vaccine shots this past spring.

However. Fast food joints run out of stuff all the time. And yet, the world has not gone insane for McFlurries. There has been no BKFlurry. Wendy’s has not mixed anything into the Frosty.

Also, in general, it is a bad idea to run out of stuff that you’re promoting heavily. And yet the Popeyes madness just spiraled.

Then there is this: Chicago, where I live, was a test market for the Popeyes chicken sandwich months before it was released nationwide. I also live less than a mile from two separate Popeyes locations. Until everyone started going insane for it, I was completely unaware that this chicken sandwich existed. (To be fair, this was also before I started working for The Takeout and chicken sandwiches became my world.) In June, a friend happened to walk into a Popeyes near her new apartment. She ordered the chicken sandwich. It was pretty good, she said. But not worthy of the rapture that later came.

Theory #2: Social media

As soon as Popeyes launched the chicken sandwich for real, Chick-fil-A’s social media team went on the defensive and posted on Twitter that the Chick-fil-A Chicken Sandwich was the Original Chicken Sandwich.

The Popeyes team, of course, did not take this lying down.

Twitter, especially Black Twitter, went nuts. The social media event even got its own hashtag: #TheChickening. Our sister site The Root interviewed two members of the social media team at GSD&M, the Austin-based ad agency behind Popeyes’ Twitter account, who said, among other things, that they’d spent four months on a whole marketing campaign that they ended up scrapping because the tweet went over so well.

Chick-fil-A bowed out of the Twitter war early, but Wendy’s leaped into the fray, followed by Zaxby’s, Bojangles, and Shake Shack. When the dust cleared, Popeyes ended up with an estimated $23 million in free advertising, plus 25,000 new Twitter followers. That’s a lot of people sitting on Twitter learning about a chicken sandwich they can’t buy because it’s sold out. Does Twitter make you hungry? I just Googled and found no conclusive answer. But judging from the sheer amount of pointless information and argument on Twitter, a lot of people go there when they’re bored. Is boredom connected to hunger? And chicken sandwiches? Or is this just another example of how Twitter creates an echo chamber to make something a Thing?

Theory #3: The same damned thing wherever you go

Why has every new chicken sandwich since the summer of 2019* been exactly the same? The basic setup: fried chicken breast, brioche bun, mayonnaise, pickles. Sometimes there will be a variation, like a potato bun or special sauce or lettuce and tomato, but very rarely does a fast food chain change more than one of these elements. And the chicken is always a breast, never a thigh, even though there’s a documented shortage of chicken breasts.

* Okay, that’s not completely true. McDonald’s introduced a new chicken sandwich that September (which had likely been in development for several months, if not years, before the Popeyes chicken sandwich first appeared). It came drenched in spicy barbecue sauce, heavily spiked with corn syrup. It was stunningly mediocre and disappeared quickly.

Why is every fast food hamburger the same? Why, when there is a whole wide world of available condiments, do American fast food joints acknowledge just ketchup, mustard, and special sauce? Are we really a nation of sheep, allergic to any sort of change?

A leaked email to McDonald’s franchise owners from early 2020 seems to indicate that that’s precisely what the brain trust of McDonald’s Nation was thinking. “We need to stay focused on coming up with a Chicken Sandwich our customers are going to crave,” it said. “A chicken sandwich that gives our customers another reason to visit McDonald’s.” Sounds a bit obsessive, yeah? And yet, lo and behold, a little more than a year later, McDonald’s released not one, but three new chicken sandwiches, with only minor variations on the general theme.

Theory #4: The pandemic

On the other hand, outside the world of chicken, we have had quite a lot of change over the past year and a half. For a long time, we couldn’t go out. Sit-down restaurants closed or pivoted to takeout-only or grocery. For a while, it seemed like all we had was fast food drive-thru or delivery. And gosh, will you look at that? For most of the pandemic, chicken was second only to pizza in terms of sales. Popeyes, KFC, and Wingstop actually experienced growth through most of 2020, at least according to same-store sales data.

And why is that? Chicken is easy to transport. It doesn’t taste absolutely wretched when it’s not piping hot. (Actually, most recipes for fried chicken recommend letting the finished chicken sit for a little while for better flavor.) And what meat eater doesn’t love fried chicken?

Popeyes’ growth, it must be noted, appeared to fall off abruptly in the fourth quarter. But then again, Q4 2020 was being compared to Q4 2019, that is, the Quarter of The Chickening. And Popeyes in 2020 still showed an increase in store-over-store sales.

Theory #5: Chicken is cheep

Last year, according to data provided by the National Chicken Council, a pound of beef cost $3.17 wholesale. A pound of chicken went for 67 cents.

At my local McDonald’s, a Crispy Chicken Sandwich is currently $4.19. A Big Mac is $5.19. Even if the wholesale prices of beef and chicken have gone up (as they probably have, due to supply chain issues), the profit margin on the chicken sandwich is still considerably larger than that of the Big Mac. It is in restaurants’ best interests for us to Eat Mor Chikin, as the Chick-fil-A cows put it.

There is also the argument that chicken is less fatty and cholesterol-laden than beef. But frying probably negates any nutritional advantage.

Theory #6: Is Popeyes really the greatest?

We say that it is. The L.A. Times says that it is. The rest of the internet says that it is. But every time a new chicken sandwich comes out, everyone just has to try to make sure. Because wouldn’t it be great if you were the first one of all your friends and acquaintances, both in life and on Twitter, to declare that Popeyes has been dethroned?

Oh, lord. We all need lives.

Theory #7: We have been manipulated by food shortages, social media, groupthink, and restaurants desperate for better profit margins, combined with extreme pandemic boredom

So really all of these things. A grand unified theory at last! Or maybe...

Theory #8: Fried chicken sandwiches taste good

Specifically, Popeyes’ fried chicken sandwich tastes good. And it costs just $3.99. Can it really be that simple? Maybe, but “simple” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” Popeyes put in a lot of work—two years of work, to be precise—to make its chicken sandwich taste so good. If we’re going to be manipulated, we should at least agree to be manipulated by the best.

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Associate editor of The Takeout. Chicagoan. Owned by dog.

DISCUSSION

juliaq
Julia Q.

once again, fuck you Chick-fil-a and your creepy draconian bias against people. Your chicken is bland and that excuse you call breading is like hamster bedding.