Food

At Bonchon, bone-in is still boss, but a crispy chicken sandwich is coming

Americans are increasingly embracing Korean flavors, so it makes sense for the growing chicken chain to step into the crowded chicken sandwich space.
The new sandwich will join the mini bulgogi chicken sliders on the menu. | Photo courtesy of Bonchon.

The chicken sandwich wars will soon have one more contender.

The Korean-American concept Bonchon is planning to launch a new fried chicken sandwich next month for the first time as part of a “menu renovation” for the 435-unit chain, which is based in Dallas. For the 135 units in the U.S., the new sandwich will be about $12 with fries, said U.S. CEO Suzie Tsai.

“This sandwich is huge. It almost puts our buns to shame,” said Tsai. “We don’t dare claim to be the next big chicken sandwich, but it’s very lunch friendly and we think we’re going to see good things coming out of that. In tests, it does very well.”

The star at Bonchon, however, remains the bone-in chicken, which is double fried and super crispy. And it’s served with Korean sauces, like the soy-garlic or spicy.

Coming back this fall is the popular Yum Yum sauce, which falls into the “swicy” trend, with a little heat and a little sweet flavor, but “it won’t make your head sweat,” said Tsai.

Chicken overall is about 70% of the menu mix at Bonchon, and tends to be the center of the plate, she said.

Boneless wings added during the pandemic are the lowest seller among the chicken offerings, she said. Tenders do a little better. But the new sandwiches could change that equation.

Bonchon is a unique concept in that it has a range of formats. About 75% of units are full-service, many with a bar, and a broader menu that also includes udon, bulgogi and japchae noodle dishes, for example.

About 10% are counter-service restaurants with a more limited menu, and the chain includes a handful of delivery/carry out units, food hall stations and ghost kitchen locations for delivery only.

Tsai calls it a “flexibility mindset.”

A full-service unit opened in a hotel last year, for example, next to the Rivian electric car company plant in Bloomington, Illinois. The brand is also coming soon to the airport in Santa Ana, California. And Tsai is working on more licensed airport sites.

But Bonchon restaurants perform best in college towns and urban/metro markets where there’s “a lot of traffic and a lot of young Gen Zs,” she noted.

It has been a big year of growth for Bonchon.

This year, the chain expects to add 40 franchised restaurants (after opening 14 in 2023), accelerating that pace to 50 to 60 openings in the U.S. each year for five years, she said.

“We’ve been lucky to ride the whole Korean pop culture trend,” said Tsai, who was named CEO in January. “We’re unique in that we’re a real Korean-American brand.”

Bonchon was founded by Jinduk Seo in South Korea in 2002 and first came to New York City in 2006. The brand also operates in Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and France. Units are expected to open in Laos and Taiwan this year.

But, as the brand moves into new domestic markets like Long Island, New York; Huntsville, Alabama; and Tucson, Arizona, there is an opportunity to educate guests about Korean food, said Tsai.

It helps that brands like Shake Shack and KFC have been dabbling with Korean sauces and flavors. Shake Shack has offered a Korean Style Fried Chicken sandwich with a gochujang glaze and kimchi as an LTO this year, along with a Korean BBQ Burger and other items. KFC recently launched nuggets with a Korean BBQ dipping sauce.

Tsai said Bonchon isn’t big enough in the U.S. to have a national media at the scale of chicken competitors like Wingstop, Popeyes and KFC. But she said, “The Korean food phenomenon has really helped franchisees grow. And we’re lucky that our chicken is very delivery friendly and keeps its crunch.”

Same-store sales have been challenged in older markets and locations, she said, without giving details. Bonchon has also not raised menu prices in about two years, which has hurt margins.

But the new menu will be designed to help franchisees get on the right track from a value proposition, she said. And the company recently signed on with Sysco as their first national supply partner.

“That was a turning point for our brand in how we scale,” said Tsai.

 

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