The chicken chain has had one of the most incredible years in quick-service history. What’s the follow-up? Becoming a household name all over the world.
McDonald’s Big Mac. Burger King’s Whopper. KFC’s Original Recipe. Arby’s Classic Roast Beef. Dairy Queen’s Blizzard.
The quick-service restaurant industry is built on the wrappers and clamshells of iconic menu items, billons of dollars spent every year on food that exists as much in the cultural zeitgeist as it does in the grease-flecked bags served out of fast-food windows across America.
And in 2019, another menu item climbed to the highest reaches of cultural relevance: Popeyes’ Chicken Sandwich. The sandwich—made up of a buttermilk-battered and hand-breaded white-meat chicken filet, two barrel-cured pickles, and a choice of classic mayo or a spicy Cajun spread, all on a toasted brioche bun—launched nationally on August 12, 2019, and two weeks and one very powerful tweet later, entered menu-development lore by selling out its entire supply.
It was one of the most astonishing product launches in restaurant history, one that took even the company completely by surprise. “We had an internal projection, which was aggressive, and we were ready to supply our restaurants with almost three times that internal projection,” says Felipe Athayde, president, Americas, at Popeyes. “We thought we were good. And once this thing materialized, it was three-and-a-half times the number that we had supply-wise. It was just impossible to predict. We were blown away.”
Better yet? The Chicken Sandwich wasn’t some flash in the pan. And it even proved immune to one of the most challenging crises in modern restaurant history.
Developing an icon
There may be only four ingredients that come together in the Chicken Sandwich, but don’t be fooled by the simplicity. It took about two years to develop the new product, a process that began just after Popeyes was acquired by Restaurant Brands International (RBI), parent also to Burger King and Tim Hortons.
Athayde says the goal in that development process was to create something that could be iconic to the Popeyes brand, which meant ensuring each ingredient was best-in-class and being highly intentional about every single detail, from taste to crunchiness.
“We knew that the sandwich category and the boneless [chicken] category were both super important in the [quick-service] industry,” he says. “And we saw this as a huge opportunity for us to expand into those categories.”
That’s wasn’t based on just a hunch. The NPD Group reported that, for the year ending February 2019, 4 billion chicken sandwiches were ordered at U.S. restaurants, up 4 percent from the previous year. That’s compared to 8.6 billion burgers, a number that was flat over the prior year. And as analyst Lauren Silberman of investment bank Credit Suisse points out, what’s noteworthy isn’t just how many more chicken sandwiches are getting sold, but who they’re getting sold to. “It appeals more to females, and that’s a key demographic to get into,” she says. “And when you think of millennials and younger people, they’ve been shifting toward boneless categories as opposed to bone-in.”
Of course, the chicken-sandwich game isn’t exactly a new frontier. A certain Atlanta-based behemoth has built its empire with a chicken sandwich as its star item. Indeed, Chick-fil-A’s dominance in the chicken-sandwich space wasn’t lost on Popeyes, which rose to prominence with a bone-in product. That’s why the New Orleans–founded and flavored chain wasn’t afraid to take some shots at Chick-fil-A when it launched its new sandwich.
Or rather, one really powerful, efficient shot. Really, just two words. On August 19, 2019, one week after Popeyes’ Chicken Sandwich launch, Chick-fil-A tweeted a not-so-thinly-veiled nudge at its rival, saying “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the [heart emoji] for the original.” In response, Popeyes tweeted simply, “…y’all good?”
It was the tweet read ’round the world. Twitter exploded with likes, retweets, commentary, and memes. Celebrities chimed in. Late-night talk-show hosts joked about it. And just like that, the so-called “Chicken Sandwich Wars” had begun.