In the competition for fast food customer dollars, an epic game of chicken is being played, and no one dares chickening out. The steaks—er, stakes—are just too high. (Sorry, had to get those bad puns out of the way pronto.)
The battles are being waged with high-profile marketing campaigns—see the big health push by Boston Market to promote its classic rotisserie chicken, and the return of Colonel Sanders for KFC. And the chicken wars are being waged with a dizzying number of new chicken items hitting restaurant menus. Chicken isn’t being limited to lunch and dinner, but it’s been added to breakfast menus as well, what with Taco Bell’s chicken-biscuit taco and nearly half of what’s featured at Chick-fil-A during the morning hours.
So many new chicken sandwiches have flooded the market that we decided to have an office taste-a-thon, featuring low-cost options from two stalwart fast-food players (Wendy’s crispy dill chicken sandwich, White Castle Sriracha chicken slider) alongside a casual dining chain’s tweak on a favorite item (Olive Garden’s chicken parm breadsticks sandwich), plus a celebrity chef’s much-hyped quick-serve fried chicken offering (David Chang’s Fuku in Manhattan). We would have loved to have also included the forthcoming chicken offshoot from Shake Shack, the fast-casual favorite created by Danny Meyer, but nothing’s available for tasting yet. In any event, watch the video above to check out the rather surprising results of the tastings for yourself.
Why has chicken become such a hot menu item? Part of the explanation is that chicken is so pliable. It takes on almost any flavor, from orange to lemon, garlic chile to tangy barbecue. It resonates with different demographics based not only on taste, but on how it can be sliced, chopped, and molded into shapes—nuggets, popcorn, dinosaurs, strips, fingers, fries, and beyond.
While the bird flu outbreak of 2015 has caused egg prices to soar, the impact on the chicken supply for restaurants has been mild. The result is that chicken prices today are cheap compared with beef, as they have been for years.
Chicken is a household staple because it’s affordable—exhibit A is the immensely popular $5 rotisserie chicken from Costco—and also because it’s perceived to be healthier than most other meats. That often goes even for chicken when it’s fried.
“Fried chicken is really a great base to work with,” Elizabeth Friend, senior analyst with the market research firm Euromonitor International, told QSR Magazine. “It’s salty, crunchy, indulgent, but still a protein that, while not exactly healthful, people feel is a better way to go than beef.”
All of the above explains why restaurants are so hot on chicken, and why chicken could one day push the burger aside for fast food supremacy. It sure looks like that’s where things are headed. Data cited by CNBC shows that America’s top 500 restaurant chains added 55 chicken items in January and February 2015, compared with just 33 new burgers, and that chicken purchases at fast food restaurants were up 3% for the 12-month period ending in March, compared with a rise of 1% for burger sales.
The shift to chicken over beef is even more pronounced when we incorporate cooking and dining at home, and when the numbers are viewed over the course of decades. According to the National Chicken Council, Americans are projected to eat 90 pounds of chicken per capita in 2015, up from 35 to 40 pounds in the late 1960s and 50 pounds in the mid-’80s. Beef has been on the opposite course, meanwhile, with per capita consumption projected at 54 pounds this year, down from 70 to 80 pounds through most of the ’70s and ’80s.