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Food

Chicken rules the roost in the Top 500

Popeyes’ sandwich and Chick-fil-A’s consistency proved again that America can’t get enough chicken.
Photograph by Jason Little

2019 was the year of the chicken. Or at least the chicken sandwich.

Perhaps no single product captured the attention of U.S. restaurants, and certainly their consumers, quite like a piece of fried chicken breast between two buns. 

This was demonstrated profoundly in late August, when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen introduced its chicken sandwich nationwide to strong reviews. And then it poked at the longtime king of the chicken sandwich mountain, Chick-fil-A, in a now-famous tweet with the simple phrase “Y’all good?”

The tweet took off, and so did Popeyes. Customers waited in the 2,500-unit chain’s dining rooms and drive-thrus for as long as 45 minutes at a time to try one of the chicken sandwiches. Many came back the next day. Ten days later, the entire chain was out of product. Same-store sales rose 10.2%.

The company took a break. It staffed up. It built supplies. And it reintroduced the sandwich on a Sunday in November. Customers returned, and they kept coming.

The Miami-based chain’s same-store sales that quarter rose 38%—the best performance by a large, publicly traded chain in modern history. The bone-in chicken chain suddenly became known for its sandwich.

In the process, Popeyes vaulted into the top 20 largest U.S. restaurant chains on Technomic’s Top 500 ranking. 

Its U.S. system sales rose 18.3%, the vast majority of which came in the second half of the year, helping it move up six spots to No. 19. By RB’s estimate, the chicken sandwich had a $360 million impact on Popeyes last year alone. 

“It’s a game changer,” said Dan Accordino, CEO of Popeyes franchisee Carrols Restaurant Group, at an investor conference in January. “I don’t think there’s been anything like it.”

Chick-fil-A marches on

Popeyes may well have tapped into a unique social media frenzy. But observers have long known about the draw of chicken, in particular boneless chicken, which consumers can eat while walking or driving.

Chick-fil-A, the subject of the Popeyes tweet, has owned that market for decades. Since 2013, the Atlanta-based chain has increased system sales by 126%, despite facing protests over CEO Dan Cathy’s past comments on gay marriage.

That strong run continued in 2019, seemingly unperturbed by the rise of Popeyes. System sales rose 13% last year, while unit count grew by 5% to 2,470. The chain’s average unit volumes are among the highest in the fast-food business at more than $4.5 million. And it’s closed on Sundays.

Chick-fil-A is now the third-largest chain in the U.S., rising two spots from last year’s ranking. It also moved past Burger King and Wendy’s to emerge as the biggest threat facing
No. 1, McDonald’s. 

“Chick-fil-A’s results demonstrate the power of chicken,” the board of McDonald’s National Owners Association, a newly created independent franchisee group, said in a letter in July. “Yes, we have great Chicken McNuggets and our McChicken is a very good product. But we do not compete in the premium chicken sandwich category, either grilled or crispy.”

Indeed, McDonald’s is making its own run at a premium chicken sandwich, testing a renewed Crispy Chicken Sandwich in Houston and Knoxville, Tenn.  

Chicken’s success runs deep

Further down the Top 500 ranking are more stories of the “power of chicken.” Zaxby’s (No. 36), which sells wings and chicken fingers as well as sandwiches, grew sales by 6%, generating $1.9 billion in system sales across 910 locations. 

At No. 42 is Raising Cane’s, one of the fastest-growing chains in the U.S.: It grew sales by 23.8%, to $1.5 billion, and unit count rose 14.3%, to 457. Cane’s sells one main product—chicken fingers—and generates average unit volumes exceeding $3 million doing so. It’s 4 times the size it was in 2013.

Then there’s chicken wing chain Wingstop (No. 44), which grew by 17.9%, to $1.3 billion. 

To be sure, it’s not just any type of chicken consumers will go for. Outside of wings, customers have shifted away from the bone-in, dinner-focused chicken chains they once knew. Traditional chicken chains such as KFC (No. 14, 2.5% sales growth), Bojangles’ (No. 47, 2.7%), El Pollo Loco (No. 54, 3%) and Church’s Chicken (No. 65, minus 5.2% sales growth) have been treading water as consumers shift their consumption.

All of which makes Popeyes’ 2019 performance more remarkable. The chain was one of those traditional bone-in chicken concepts. Its spicier taste profile helped it generate good growth in recent years—sales increased 5.1% in 2018, for instance—but nowhere near that of its boneless competitors.

But after spending two years developing a sandwich, the chain has evolved into a hybrid: an old-school bone-in chain with a decidedly new-school boneless product that’s a hit with the young crowd.

Indeed, the people waiting in those lines featured a lot of new faces. That opens up new geographies and markets for Popeyes, which means its climb up the Top 500 isn’t done.

“There was a change in demographic,” Accordino said. “It’s providing us with opportunities we might otherwise have passed on.”

 

Source: Technomic Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report

Learn more about Technomic’s Top 500.

See the Top 250 chains.

 

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