Fried chicken has all but exploded in recent months, with concepts focused on the item opening at a clip that would make Foghorn Leghorn’s head spin. And as thinning cattle herds put pressure on beef prices last year, operators sought alternatives to trendy burgers piled high with toppings.
Read on to see how restaurants have responded to the higher prices and increased competition by riffing on the standard chicken sandwich—whether by ruffling feathers at breakfast, adding an ethnic edge or stepping outside of their usual offerings.
Chicken finds a sweet spot at breakfast
As chains like McDonald’s expand breakfast all day and the lines between dayparts continue to blur, chicken is taking a more prominent place on the morning menu. Twenty-nine percent of consumers say they would like more restaurants to serve chicken at breakfast—a number that jumps to 43 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds, according to market researcher Technomic.
As such, many concepts are waking up to the possibilities posed by fried chicken at breakfast, especially where sweet-and-savory preparations are concerned.
Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit
While other QSRs have beefed up their breakfast menus, Wendy’s kept its own rather small, relegating its morning offerings to select markets rather than offer them chainwide. However, recent signs indicate the chain may be entering the full-fledged breakfast foray. Its Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit has garnered substantial press of late, with one Eater writer declaring it “the best breakfast sandwich of all time.”
A McDonald’s franchisee in Ohio is testing a twist on the chicken-and-waffles breakfast combo by offering a Chicken McGriddle. This variation replaces the egg, meat and cheese found in the chain’s signature McGriddle with the fried chicken usually used in its Buttermilk Crispy Chicken Deluxe sandwich.
Bright-Eyed Biscuit Sandwich
Blue Smoke, New York City
Union Square Hospitality Group’s Blue Smoke combines several trends with this sandwich offered during its Southern-inspired brunch service, which piles fried egg, pimiento cheese and spicy fried chicken on a halved biscuit doughnut ($16.00). “It is is a top seller at brunch and one of the most photographed dishes on social media,” says Executive Chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois, noting that he aimed to “do something a little different” with this take on chicken and biscuits, hence the fried egg.
Burger concepts give guests the bird
By innovating new chicken offerings, burger restaurants have been able to kill two birds: cutting their own costs while playing into current consumer preferences. Twenty-six percent of restaurant customers are choosing chicken more often due to rising beef costs, recent Technomic data shows, while 10 percent are dining at more restaurants that specialize in chicken.
Shake Shack paved the way for the burgers-gone-chicken craze when it last year tested its first-ever chicken sandwich as a regional special in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Chick’n Shack—which has since been rolled out nationwide—marked “a new era” for the chain, CEO Randy Garutti said, noting that the sandwich allowed the brand to remain true to its core products “while continuing to innovate new items our guests have asked for.”
This sandwich served at Hollywood Burger’s recently opened Los Angeles outpost combines fried chicken, spicy slaw, dill pickles and a chipotle-honey sauce ($7.50). “There’s a demand for [chicken], even among die-hard beef and burger eaters,” says Scott Mathis, Hollywood Burger’s founder and CEO. “Chicken sandwiches are comfort food to some, and health food to others. This is not a dichotomy you often hear claimed about beef.”
Not So Classic
Stomping Ground, Alexandria, Va.
This sandwich served at Stomping Ground capitalizes on za’atar’s rising flavor star. The Middle Eastern spice blend—generally comprised of sumac, oregano, sesame seeds and thyme, or similar spices—merges with tahini, hot sauce, honey and red onion on the familiar base of buttermilk-fried chicken ($9).
Crispy Bird Sandwich
Streetbird Rotisserie, New York City
Customers at Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem spot can chow down on this Asian/Ethiopian mashup, which features fried chicken that’s been marinated in coconut milk, ginger and berbere—an Ethiopian spice blend—then tossed in barbecue sauce and piled with melted cheddar, Japanese-style mayo, pickles, lettuce and tomato ($9.50).