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Early next month, Burger King’s long-awaited chicken sandwich, now known as the “Ch’King,” will be available nationwide.
It was not lost on some observers that Burger King is owned by Restaurant Brands International, which is also the owner of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, which is the chain that kicked off the Chicken Wars with the introduction of its own sandwich in 2019—the single most popular new product introduction in recent industry history.
Burger King’s sandwich is similar to Popeyes’ sandwich and has a similar price point, essentially pitting the two chains against one another though they are both owned by the same company.
Yet the impact is unlikely to be significant. The reason has to do with the competitive complexities of the restaurant industry and why people opt for one chain over the other. There is little evidence that all of these sandwiches are hurting sales at existing concepts that sell them. And there is more evidence that Burger King itself has been hurt by not having a sandwich.
“They should have done it earlier,” said John Gordon, a restaurant consultant out of San Diego. “They needed to, because McDonald’s and Wendy’s have been eating their lunch.”
RBI, formed in 2014 with the combination of Tim Hortons and Burger King, bought Popeyes in 2017 and quickly sought to create a chicken sandwich. That introduction hit restaurants in 2019, generating a better quarterly same-store sales result in the fourth quarter of that year than any restaurant chain ever experienced. Those sales continued to be strong even through the pandemic.
That move on its own did more to pit the two chains against one another than anything Burger King has done since then.
Burger King and Popeyes are historically quite different. Burger King is a burger concept with the three major dayparts that does a lot of its business at lunch. Popeyes is a chicken concept that has historically sold bone-in chicken and similar items that does much of its business at dinner. By introducing the chicken sandwich, Popeyes made a big push for the lunch business. And Burger King already sold a chicken sandwich.
Meanwhile, there is not much evidence that all this chicken sandwich development is taking sales away from chains that already had upgraded chicken sandwiches. Exhibit A is Chick-fil-A.
The Atlanta-based chicken sandwich concept saw its system sales rise 13% in 2019, the year Popeyes introduced its own version. It generated an additional $1.6 billion in sales in 2020 despite the pandemic—more in absolute terms than any other restaurant chain in the U.S. that year. Popeyes, we might note, generated an additional $800 million in sales last year, according to Restaurant Business sister company Technomic.
More evidence came in the first quarter. Both McDonald’s and KFC, Popeyes direct competitors, generated strong sales with their own chicken sandwich introductions. Despite that competitive intrusion, the company was able to report a slight increase in its same-store sales—despite a 29% increase in the same quarter a year ago. Wendy’s, which introduced an upgraded version last year, actually saw a pickup in its sandwich sales.
Meanwhile, go back to the fourth quarter of 2019 when Popeyes generated 38% same-store sales growth. McDonald’s at the time reported 5.1% same-store sales and Wendy’s, which had jumped on the Popeyes-fueled chicken social media bandwagon, reported 4.5%. In both cases, the figures were similar to their third-quarter numbers, when Popeyes’ chicken sandwich was less of an issue.
Burger King, on the other hand, saw a slowdown—to 0.6% in the fourth quarter 2019 from 5% the quarter before. Other factors could well be at play. But that slowdown coincides with Popeyes’ sandwich introduction and Burger King has been underperforming since.
In the meantime, 50 restaurant chains ranging from Taco Bell to Red Lobster have introduced new chicken sandwiches or their own unique take on the product—including both McDonald’s and Wendy’s. People are eating more chicken sandwiches and are clearly enjoying the innovation.
All of which means Burger King probably has an obligation to introduce its own version, simply to keep pace with a market that has moved so rapidly toward higher-end chicken.