Big Bird: Why Fast Food Companies Are Suddenly In Love With Chicken

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David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

McDonalds' chicken selects are among the popular poultry items now being sold at fast food restaurants.

Talk about a comeback. For years, a roast chicken was the quintessential Sunday dinner, and Depression-era political campaigns invoked the phrase “a chicken in every pot” to symbolize economic prosperity. But in the ensuing decades, chicken’s cache faded as it became the also-ran protein in the fast food universe: It was chopped up into nuggets or chucked onto Caesar salads without a second thought.

Today, the tide has turned. Chicken was branded a “menu newsmaker” by the keynote speaker at a food industry conference last week, and a look at drive-through menus verifies that the humble bird is back in the spotlight with some fancy new accessories. Fast-food burger chains can’t add upscale chicken items to their menus fast enough, while chicken-centric brands are doubling down on gourmet-style offerings. 

“Gourmet chicken menu items at quick service restaurants are a popular trend right now,” says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst at NPD Group. Premium chicken sandwiches, wraps and strips help fast food chains blur the line between them and more upscale fast casual brands like Panera Bread and Chipotle that Riggs says “are currently the restaurant industry’s shining star.”

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This summer, McDonald's introduced chicken “McBites,” popcorn chicken made of whole breast meat. At the end of August, Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced six new dipping sauces to draw attention to its “Handcrafted Chicken Tenders” that are battered and breaded in the stores. “Chains are emphasizing quality with terms like ‘all white meat,’ and ‘whole pieces,’” says Kathy Hayden, a foodservice analyst at Mintel Menu Insights.

McDonald’s is also market-testing a Cheddar Bacon Onion Chicken Sandwich that will roll out nationally for a limited time this fall. If those toppings sound like things you’d be more likely to encounter on a hamburger, that’s the idea. “The burger giant has been matching all their Angus burger flavor profiles to chicken sandwiches, and this is the latest,” Hayden says.

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Last month, fast food trade publication QSR Web reported that White Castle began selling three varieties of grilled chicken sliders: plain, bacon ranch and barbecue onion. Also in September, Burger King rolled out “premium chicken” items including sandwiches and popcorn chicken bites.

After years of racing to outdo themselves with increasingly extravagant burgers, the fast food industry has determined that chicken is the new Angus beef. “Chicken has been in very high demand… You have to be in the chicken game if you’re going to be successful, regardless of price,” Darren Tristano, executive vice president at restaurant industry research firm Technomic, told Nation’s Restaurant News.

(MORE: Why We Stopped Buying Fast-Food Combo Meals)

There are two big reasons behind  this poultry push. The first is economic: Chicken is cheaper than beef. We’ve been hearing for the past several months how the heat and droughts that struck agricultural regions like the Midwest earlier this year will wreak havoc on food prices, and beef prices had already climbed 30% in the past two years beforehand.

“As beef prices have risen and will continue to do so, many chain restaurants’ menu R&D efforts have shifted to chicken… as a way to offer innovation around a protein that is less expensive than burgers or other forms of beef,” Hayden says. Yes, the escalating cost of livestock feed will make chicken prices go up, too, but the increase won’t be as steep.

The other reason is consumer perception: Specifically, even if it’s slathered with some glorified version of mayo, stacked with bacon and cheese or even encased in a crispy shell, we think chicken is better for us. “Chicken, whether it’s grilled or fried, has a healthier halo than beef,” Riggs says. Hayden says that chicken also is a good fit for smaller-portioned “snack” items, which are popular right now with fast food diners.

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