UPDATE, Dec. 2, 2019: McDonald's said it will test two chicken sandwiches in select restaurants starting Monday in Houston and Knoxville, Tennessee, according to posts on Twitter. It will offer a Crispy Sandwich with butter and crinkle cut dill pickles and a Deluxe option with tomatoes, lettuce and mayo. Both are served on a buttery potato roll.
- McDonald's plans to launch a spicy chicken sandwich in mid-September, reports Business Insider.
- The rollout will include a spicy BBQ sandwich and spicy BBQ glazed tenders. The new offerings are variations on McDonald's buttermilk crispy chicken, originally launched in 2015.
- This launch will come a little more than a month after Popeyes added its own chicken sandwich with spicy Cajun spread, its biggest product launch in 30 years.
Judging by both the viral reaction to Popeyes' spicy chicken sandwich launch and Chick-fil-A's staggering growth trajectory, McDonald's is certainly striking this category while the iron is hot. According to The NPD Group, chicken sandwich servings ordered in the year ending February 2019 were up 4% from same period a year ago, at 4 billion servings. By comparison, burger orders stayed flat from orders one year ago, at 8.6 billion.
Such an opportunity has ignited a fierce competition that has carried into a Twitter war between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A, among others. These Twitter wars have generated substantial hype for Popeyes, resulting in restaurants reporting shortages of the sandwich, and one customer even trying to sell one of the sandwiches online for $100.
Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A — which touts itself as the originator of the chicken sandwich — recently surpassed Wendy's, Burger King, Taco Bell and Subway to become the third-largest restaurant chains by sales, despite the fact that it's closed one day a week.
Such positive activity has had McDonald's franchisees anxious to jump in. In July, the National Owners Association told McDonald's franchisees that adding a chicken sandwich to the menu should be a top priority, especially with Chick-fil-A's growing dominance in the industry. The organization suggested that McDonald's should start testing a Southern-style chicken sandwich and use similar techniques as Chick-fil-A. This December test could very well fit that bill. McDonald's Crispy Chicken and Deluxe could also enable it to compete against Popeyes as that company surges in the category. Popeyes' sandwich was so popular, it sold out in two weeks, and remained a crowd-pleaser even when it returned two months later, resulting in a nearly 300% increase in foot traffic. McDonald's also can learn a few things from operational difficulties Popeyes continues to face, which has resulted in long lines and disgruntled customers. Franchise operators hired hundreds more workers to try and meet overwhelming demand for the re-release in September.
The fact that McDonald's is planning this line as a variation of its buttermilk chicken could also provide somewhat of an advantage. McDonald's buttermilk chicken tenders were such a hit upon launch, some locations had to pull the item in 2017 because of shortages. At the same time, McDonald's may need a chicken sandwich boost as its U.S. foot traffic has declined for several quarters.
McDonald's will also have an advantage from its footprint alone. If American consumers are craving chicken sandwiches, as research indicates, they'll have over 14,000 McDonald's locations to choose from to satisfy their demand, compared to about 3,000 Popeyes and 2,300 Chick-fil-A restaurants. Consumers may have a chicken sandwich preference when it comes to brands, but sometimes those preferences are trumped by convenience.
Right now, though, one thing is clear: As the demand for chicken continues to grow and Chick-fil-A continues to churn out standard-bearing results, the chicken sandwich wars are just getting started.