How fried chicken sandwiches evolved beyond flash-in-the-pan trend to a menu mainstay at both full- and quick-service restaurants.

The restaurant world became a different place in 2019 when fried chicken sandwiches rose to a never-before-seen level of prominence. The craze was ignited by an epic battle among quick-service chains, each trying to prove their respective sandwich was superior in a marketing trend known as “The Chicken Sandwich Wars.” Four years and one industry-shaking pandemic later, consumer interest in battered and fried chicken between two buns has continued unabated; full-service restaurants are even cashing in on the trend with elevated adaptations of the product.

As a primarily bone-in chicken and tenders purveyor, Popeyes wasn’t sure what to expect when it introduced a fried chicken sandwich in August 2019—especially after spending three years developing the product and conducting market tests. With a buttery brioche bun, tangy mayo, crisp pickles, and seasoned chicken breast, the brand thought it had a winner on its hands. The response was a game-changer for the chain, which sold out of the new menu item in a matter of days. 

“It was not a stunt nor was it fake,” says Sami Siddiqui, president at Popeyes. “We could have never predicted selling out as fast as we did due to such unprecedented demand.”

In the first few days of the launch, Popeyes sold more than 10 times the number of sandwiches it had predicted based on rigorous market testing. After relaunching the product permanently that November, the brand had one of the best quarters in nearly two decades.

One crucial aspect when considering launching the new menu item was in-restaurant execution. Working closely with franchisees, Popeyes was able to introduce new sandwich line equipment and batter tables in all of its restaurants, as well as train thousands of team members in a matter of weeks. 

“Ultimately, this type of on-the-ground execution from our franchisees and team members drove the incredible response from guests,” says Siddiqui, who joined the brand in September 2020 after previously serving as president of parent company Restaurant Brand International’s Asia-Pacific region.

Bonefish Grill

Nobody can argue Popeyes got the real debate started on social media.

Though Popeyes certainly helped light the spark, the Chicken Sandwich Wars drew several other opponents. Chick-fil-A took to Twitter to claim its version predated the Popeyes’ sandwich, and a social media storm ensued that captivated the internet for more than a week. A comedy sketch on “Saturday Night Live” even parodied the popularity of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, with Harry Styles playing an expat who’s oblivious to the chain’s cultural touchstones.

Popeyes ended up selling 203 million chicken sandwiches in the first year, which equated to a 38 percent increase in overall sales in 2019. By February 2021, the company shared a staggering statistic, revealing the scale of impact: After introducing the chicken sandwich, Popeyes’ average-unit volumes rose by $400,000, amounting to $1.8 million. Popeyes also opened 200 restaurants in 2021, propelling it past the 3,000-unit benchmark in the U.S. and Canada. The company even signed more development agreements than at any other time in the brand’s history.

“The Chicken Wars were lightning in a bottle for Popeyes. Having a great product was foundational, but we capitalized on a unique social media moment that became ownable for our brand,” Siddiqui says. “We posted the tweet heard around the world, ‘Y’all good?’, a playful nod at one of our friends in the chicken industry that embodied our Southern heritage while engaging early in the social conversation. We like to think we ignited the Chicken Wars, and we’re proud of everything that has happened since.”

Consumers’ hunger for the comforting, portable meal only grew throughout the pandemic. Soon, more than 20 fast-food brands had introduced chicken sandwiches to their menus, including Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Golden Chick, KFC, Fatburger, Church’s Chicken, BurgerFi, Zaxby’s, Fuku, Jack in the Box, Sonic, Carl’s Jr., Shake Shack, Pollo Campero, Bojangles, and more. Even concepts that weren’t necessarily known for chicken, like Taco Bell and Panda Express, tried to cash in on the trend.

“I also think the chicken craze was because of the cost; a lot of people don’t say that, but chicken is obviously cheaper than burgers or other meats,” says Troy Guard, chef and owner of Denver-based TAG Restaurant Group (TRG). 

STK’s Tomahawk Steak

Tag Restaurant Group features chicken across its multi-brand lineup. 

TRG comprises a dozen restaurants including breakfast joint Hashtag, bowl-centric fast casual Bubu, modern steakhouse Guard & Grace, and a Denver-area food hall—where multi-unit chicken sandwich concept Crack Shack has planted a foothold. Since opening, it’s ranked as the No. 1 stall in the venue.

A few years ago, Guard himself won a chicken sandwich battle in Denver called Chicken Fight Festival. He marinated a chicken breast for 24 hours, letting it sit half a day to get crispier in the deep-frying process, and added sweet-and-spicy aioli and pickles, lettuce, tomato, and slaw.

“It’s a huge crowd-pleaser, but it takes a little bit of time, I think, to make a good chicken sandwich,” he says.

And the appeal of the chicken sandwich reaches far beyond quick-service and nontraditional restaurants. The menu item has been a mainstay for more than a decade at Rock & Brews, a casual dining, rock music–inspired restaurant and eatertainment concept founded by none other than Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of famed band KISS.

The California-based brand—which has grown to 18 locations, including airport and casino units—introduced its Southern Fried Chicken Sandwich right around the brand’s inception in 2010. The fan-favorite dish features a sesame brioche bun, iceberg lettuce, pickles, mayo, a tomato, and, of course, fried chicken.

Then came the Demon Chicken Sandwich, named after Simmons’ stage persona.

“Gene likes to peek his head into the kitchen every blue moon and collaborate with culinary and put his creative input inside,” says Ben Magana, executive chef at Rock & Brews. 

Maggiano’s

Rock & Brews unveiled a chicken sandwich shortly after its inception

“He wanted a spicy sandwich that kind of represented his demon persona, so try to envision how he looks—the makeup, bright red lips, contrast of colors. And the mission was to create a sandwich that reflected the color, the heat, that feeling of being a little bit bigger than life,” Magana says. The sandwich’s large size, which requires two hands to pick up, also represents Simmons’s tall stature at 6 feet 2 inches, Magana adds.

The fried chicken breast is tossed in Rockin’ Hot Sauce and has a house-made pepperjack cheese spread, chipotle slaw, marinated red onions, fresh jalapeños, and chipotle ranch, and ranges from $13.50 to $17.95, depending on the location.

“It’s one of our best-selling items. It’s a staple,” Magana says. “People come in and want to take a picture with it and post it, since its name in our menu is the Demon Chicken, and everyone immediately knows what it’s about.”

Though the product is steeper in price than Popeyes’ chicken sandwich, which averages around $4–$5, guests at Rock & Brews seem to have no aversion to paying a little extra for the themed sandwich and experience. If anything, the Chicken Sandwich Wars have helped boost business for the full-service restaurant; such orders now account for roughly 13–14 percent of sales at Rock & Brews.

“Restaurants have learned to evolve what used to be [quick-service] food into something a little more elevated and make it their own,” Magana says. “So whether you go to Popeyes and get a sandwich or come to Rock & Brews and get the Demon Chicken, you know in your mind what you’re going to get. The base is the same for both, but sometimes you crave one and sometimes you crave the other.”

Keeping with the tradition of friendly competition among restaurant players, Wingstop believes its chicken sandwich stands out from the pack. Launched in August 2022, the brand had an experience similar to Popeyes when it completely sold out in six days, burning through four weeks of inventory. 

After restocking, Wingstop relaunched the product in October through a phased rollout to restaurants, making sure staff levels were high enough for demand.

Famous Dave’s

Wingstop’s Chicken Sandwich super power is its variety.

“It really showed us the opportunity we have as a brand with chicken sandwiches as a new, different, interesting way to bring consumers in,” says Michael Skipworth, CEO of Texas-based Wingstop. 

Sauced chicken wings have a tendency to make a mess, which not everyone appreciates, Skipworth notes. A chicken sandwich presents a better alternative during the lunch daypart for people on the go—though customers should expect to wait an average of 18–20 minutes, since food is cooked to order.

While chains such as Popeyes typically offer chicken sandwiches either classic or spicy, Wingstop’s biggest differentiator is the ability to get its chicken sandwich tossed in one of 12 unique flavors, from the popular Lemon Pepper or Garlic Parmesan dry rubs to Cajun or Mango Habanero sauces. 

To that end, wings have long been the ideal blank canvas for flavor innovation at Wingstop. For example, in December, the brand launched Carolina Gold BBQ as a limited-time option with a sweet mustard base, vinegar, brown sugar, and overall tangy flavor profile. 

Despite early inventory shortages, the payoff was worth it for Wingstop. Swipworth says it’s one of the few brands that’s able to drive sales through positive transaction growth at this point in time rather than through price hikes that inflate sales figures. 

And with average unit volumes sitting at roughly $1.6 million, product innovation will be the ticket to driving that number north of $2 million, he says.

With positive feedback from guests and chicken sandwiches mixing in the high single digits, Skipworth expects to see the product mix continue its upward climb as the brand builds on the success of the launch.

“You’re seeing chicken consumption continue to grow, particularly in the U.S. but even outside the U.S., and I don’t think that dynamic is going to change,” he adds.

Feature, Menu Innovations, Rock & Brews