Popeyes, who triggered the last fight with his spicy chicken sandwich in August, strives to regain that viral feeling "as soon as possible." Chick-fil-A is growing regularly, selling chicken chains almost double its size. And McDonald's franchise players, who watched the fight from the sidelines, push their corporate boss to take the crazy, panicked award home.
"JFK wanted a man on the moon," they wrote in a July letter. "Our conversation should be a category that brings chicken sandwich."
"If you have the largest share of a growing category, there's plenty in excess," said Michael Haracz, who until August served as McDonald's culinary innovation manager. "There is exponentially more sales, more buzz, more foot traffic to your restaurant."
There will be "clear winners," said Haracz, who will dominate the space and make a profit – as long as they can keep up with demand.
Thirty Years of Food Fighting
Although the fight for fried chicken was particularly lively this summer, it was part of a dynamic dating back at least 30 years.
In 1989, McDonald's launched a national "country style" McChicken sandwich and triggered a battle with Hardee's, then one of the largest fast food chains in the country. While McDonald's is touting its new product, it's not even comparable to our chicken fillet sandwich, which has been on the market since 1979, President Hardee said at the time, according to a 1989 report from the Charlotte Observer. The newspaper published the story with the headline, "Chicken sandwiches stimulate fast food war."
Over the ensuing decades, fast-food chains have launched and relaunched new iterations of the sandwich. McDonald's has had several versions including premium deals and limited time offers. Only during the past year were served Ultimate Chicken Sandwich, Mighty Chicken Sandwich, a Spicy BBQ Chicken Sandwich and McChicken.
But even though items like Double Down have gone viral, there may not have been anything like the frenzy that happened this summer when Popeyes launched the national chicken sandwich.  People stood in line for hours for a chance to taste (and post pictures of) the sandwich. Workers reportedly had large hours when store operators crawled to keep up with the increase in impatient customers.
Many point to a Twitter exchange that opens. On August 19, a week after the Popeyes sandwich hit the stores, Chick-fil-As's official Twitter account released a message: "Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the <3 for the original." Popeyes interpreted the message as a jab, retweeted the post and added "…. are you okay?"
The sassy response hit a nerve. It has amassed nearly 87,000 retweets and 324,000 likes, hilarious memes and elicited countless crying clay emojis from social media users. Chick-fil-A didn't take the bait, but Wendy's went in and spread with Popeyes on Twitter to the delight of the crowd.
It is unlikely that the brand war would have had such a big impact if Americans were not already interested in fried chicken sandwiches.
"There had always been fried chicken sandwiches," said Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing for CCD Innovation, a food and beverage consulting firm. But she traces the current interest in the commodity to the 2008 financial crisis.
"One of the things that came out of the lowest moment was an interest in comfort food, as well as many people opening food trucks and creating stalls," she said. "And then there were definitely a lot of fried chicken sandwiches coming out at that time. And it's never really stopped."
And while tailor-made fried chicken sandwiches were getting local fans, a small, odd chain regularly came along.
The Emergence of Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A traces its roots back to founder S. Truett Cathy's original dining room, Dwarf Grill, which opened in 1946. Cathy opened the first Chick-fil-A in 1967 , in the Greenbriar mall in Atlanta.
For years, the company expanded primarily in grocery stores for malls. In 1986, it opened its first standalone location in Atlanta. Today, the chain operates more than 2,400 restaurants in 47 states and Washington, D.C. Other chicken chains are bigger – for example, Popeyes has more than 2,600 American restaurants, and KFC has about 4,000. But Chick-fil-A sells them out.
Chick-fil-A, ranked by annual revenue, is the fifth largest US restaurant chain by McDonald's, Starbucks, Subway and Taco Bell – all of which have by far several shops.
The individual stores of Chick-fil-A are more productive than some of the larger competitors. They withdrew an average of $ 4.4 million in 2018, well above unit sales at McDonald's or Starbucks, according to Technomic, a company specializing in food industry research.
The chain is also beloved, according to polls and surveys.
Customer service and food quality help explain Chick-fil-A & # 39; s success. But it also has a commercially important X-factor: authenticity.
R. J. Hottovy, an analyst covering Morningstar's food, said that in recent years, companies that specialize in a particular product and appear more authentic tend to outperform those who try to appeal to everyone.
Still, Chick-fil-A has grown at a steady clip and picked up the devoted followers.
"There are so many people now who have understanding or notions of what Chick-fil-A is, even if they never eat there or have never seen one," Nielsen noted. "It has become a bit of this mythical thing, and obviously millennial bugs have found it, and found it fit their bill."
As Chick-fil-A locations show up in several cities, more people are rushing to test out their sandwiches. It has helped increase sales of fried chicken sandwich – and made other fast food chains pay attention. "This fried chicken trend is constantly evolving because companies like Chick-fil-A are expanding their reach," Nielsen said.
While Chick-fil-A is crawling all over the nation, one group in particular is trying to defend its territory. McDonald's franchise players are asking for reinforcements.
10. July – a month before Popeyes launched its sandwich – sent the board of the National Owners Association, a group of McDonald's franchisees formed in 2018, a strongly worded letter to members.
"We find ways to drive profitable growth," the board wrote. "Still, we still lose the guest count. This continues to be a concern."
One of the reasons for the loss, the board argued, is that customers who crave a delicious fried chicken sandwich do not come to McDonald's. They are going to Chick-fil-A.
"A favorite, which our customers want, is a chicken sandwich. Unfortunately, they have to go to Chick-fil-A for that," the board said. "Chick-fil-A's results show the power of chicken. Yes, we have good Chicken McNuggets and our McChicken is a very good product. But we do not compete in the premium chicken sandwich category, neither grilled nor crispy."
The letter continued with a warning: "The results of our US Southeast markets should concern everyone. You may not have Chick-fil-A's in your market or to the extent that they have them in the Southeast, but they will. don't discount. "
"Chicken has been on the radar for a good while at McDonald's," Haracz said. "A number of chicken sandwiches have been tested."
"I think it's fair to assume that everything going on in the quarter with chicken would have gone a bit the opposite way on chicken. So I think that's a fair conclusion," replied Kevin Ozan, the company's chief financial officer.
For now, McDonald's plans hold close to the West. The company declined to tell CNN Business when it expects to launch its next chicken sandwich, but noted, "We are inspired by customers' demand for premium chicken sandwiches, and work closely with our franchisees to deliver what our customers want. Stay tuned."
A source close to the conversation between the owners and McDonald's management said that a premium chicken sandwich could start rolling out as soon as this year.
But while McDonald's is peeing and focusing on other areas of the business, franchise owners have become impatient.
In late August, following Popeye's massively successful launch, Blake Casper, NOA's director, sent out another expensive note.
"It was a busy week, especially if you work at Popeyes," he wrote. "Popeyes came out with a chicken sandwich that rivals Chick-fil-A. It's the first time Chick-fil-A has blinked, or more precisely, was forced to blink. But make no mistake, they blinked. Wendy's got into the action and unfortunately we're still not in the game. "
But, Casper continued, it's not over yet.
"It's going to change. We're working on a chicken sandwich to compete. We want to be in the game. People will be fed up with the service at Popeyes, and they'll have an alternative to Chick-fil-A," he said.
"They want a chicken sandwich at McDonald's. We're going to give it to them."