Food & Drinks

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk Fast Food’s Chicken Sandwich Wars

American fast food companies have been sparring it out in the chicken sandwich wars for years. It all started when Popeyes launched its spicy masterpiece in 2019: a sandwich so coveted that one man was reportedly stabbed to death after an in-store fight erupted over someone jumping the queue. Popeyes saw a 38% jump in store sales post launch—and fast food brands have been vying for even a nugget of that success since. In 2021, Burger King entered the ring. This summer, Starbucks sent its chicken-and-egg sandwich into battle (and some customers claimed it gave them diarrhea). Wingstop also relaunched its formerly-sold out chicken sandwiches in October, causing its stock price to climb nearly 7% overnight.

Chicken sandwiches offer a triumvirate of appealing things: crispy, salty, and affordable. Inflation has increased the average price by about 18%, but most still cost less than $5. Even as labor and supply chain issues supposedly created a poultry shortage this year, the flood of chicken sandwiches just kept on coming—and many experts believe they won’t stop. “Flavor, bun, topping, and coating innovation will continue to drive interest,” says Claire Lancaster, the Head of Food & Drink at trend forecasting company WGSN. So will hyped up drops and the relentless rhetoric that chicken is more sustainable and healthier than beef, which has seen a 40% drop in sales since 2003

There’s one other major driver fueling the chicken sandwich wars: the American poultry industry, which is designed to crank out astronomical amounts of cheap meat. Years of corporate consolidation, and an increasing appetite for chicken, has made poultry one of most prolific fast food staples in the US. But it’s come at great cost. Experts say we have so many affordable chicken sandwiches on the market because poultry farmers, meat processing workers, chickens, and the environment are being treated terribly while corporations profit. 

Of course, the meat industry’s failings are well-documented. But in line, waiting for a taste of golden fried chicken as the smell of hot oil hijacks all sense of morality, it’s easy to forget. 

Chicken sandwiches wouldn’t exist without this country’s love of poultry in general—an obsession that’s been decades in the making. Sixty years ago, Americans ate about 32 pounds of chicken per person. In 2021, that figure had grown to over 98 pounds. 

Chickens first arrived on Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas in 1493, historian Emelyn Rude wrote in Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird. But for most early colonists, the birds were primarily kept as egg-layers, eaten only when they were old and useless. “They were probably tough and not so amazing tasting,” says Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor of food studies at NYU.

That all started to change in 1946, when the quest for bigger, better birds began. The USDA, along with a slew of prominent poultry businesses, announced the “Chicken of Tomorrow” competition, Rude wrote. For poultry to compete with beef and pork, the dominant proteins on the American dinner plate at the time, it needed to be meatier and more tender—and the farmer who bred a chicken with the juiciest breasts would win $5,000. Subsequent nutrition, veterinary, and indoor housing innovations supported super chicken growth. By the 1950s, Americans were digging the plumped-up new birds.

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