Looking back at 2020, it wouldn’t be wrong for food historians to call it “the year of the fried chicken sandwich.”
No fewer than 50 chains introduced premium crispy chicken sandwiches or upgraded former versions. All of which put chicken-centric concepts in very good standing in Technomic’s 2021 Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report.
Chick-fil-A led the pack, coming in at No. 3 in the ranking, with U.S. system sales of $13.7 billion, up 13% year over year. The QSR, a perennial favorite with teens, has long had a premium fried chicken sandwich on its menu, and its slogan states "we didn't invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich."
Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen challenged that claim when it launched its new crispy fried chicken sandwich in Aug. 2019. The debut came along with a tweet poking fun at Chick-fil-A and triggered what has come to be known as “the chicken sandwich wars.”
The buzz generated huge demand for Popeyes sandwich and spurred the chain to roll it out again that fall, eventually moving it to the permanent menu in 2020. It’s largely the success of that fried chicken sandwich that landed Popeyes at No. 15 in the Top 500, with $4.6 billion in sales—an impressive 20.3% jump over 2019.
Popeyes added $1 billion in system sales last year, but just ahead in the Top 500 ranking is another chicken chain—KFC at No. 14. It chalked up $4.7 billion in sales and 4.3% year-over-year growth. The chain tested its new KFC Chicken Sandwich in 2020—an item that had been in development pre-pandemic—and began rolling it out nationally early in 2021.
“Since then, sales have continued to exceed expectations,” said Kevin Hochman, KFC U.S. president.
But KFC and other chicken chains had more going for them than sandwiches. Their menus focus on familiar, delivery-friendly food, including chicken tenders and fried chicken meals, which lured comfort-seeking consumers looking for a relatively inexpensive family dinner.
“Our KFC bucket meals were a big growth driver for us during COVID-19 as customers were sheltered in place and eating more group meals together at home,” said Hochman. “With bigger restaurant tickets, driven by more eaters per check, we quickly added a $30Fill Up Meal which featured one bucket of chicken and a bucket of Extra Crispy Tenders, plus three sides and biscuits. It was a home run overnight.”
Zaxby’s, which also tested an upgraded Signature Sandwich in 2020, credits a shift in its menu focus to its growth last year. The Southern-rooted chain ranks No. 30 with just shy of $2 billion in systemwide sales, an increase of 5%.
“To meet the changing needs of our guests, early in 2020 we introduced Family Packs and a Zax Pack for Two, brought back our Zensation Zalad and Sandwich, and then featured our four, five or six Finger Plate to close out the year,” said Zaxby’s CMO Joel Bulger. “We knew it was important to deliver comforting meals our guests know and love during such a difficult time.
Featuring our best-loved products also helped with speed of service in the drive-thru,” said Bulger. “Family Packs, in particular, helped meet the growing demand for group orders at a great value—so much so that they’ve become a permanent menu item.”
The true star this year has been Zaxby’s Signature Sandwich, he added. After its 2020 test, “we said farewell to our TLC Sandwich to make room for the new chicken sandwich. Since launching it in March, the brand has experienced 20% higher sales.”
The majority of the top 10 chicken chains have drive-thrus, another huge plus during COVID. Drive-thrus were deemed essential businesses and could remain open when other restaurants had to close and dining in was banned.
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers was also a beneficiary of drive-in business and a focused menu, said AJ Kumaran, co-CEO and COO. The chain increased sales 17.5% and rapidly accelerated unit growth, now numbering 554 locations, up from 509 in 2020.
“About 96% of our restaurants have drive-thrus and we had shields installed to show customers that they could get a safe, healthy meal that’s affordable too,” said Kumaran. Raising Cane’s off-premise business is takeout only; it has no delivery partners. But the concept’s focus on chicken—“the most popular protein in the world,” he said—was a big advantage.
“The chicken sandwich wars brought chicken front and center during the pandemic,” said Kumaran. Crispy fried chicken tenderloins or “fingers,” Raising Cane’s core menu item, are the base of the sandwich, too. It features three tenders, Cane’s sauce and lettuce on a toasted bun.
The hype surrounding fried chicken sandwiches might have pushed consumers toward these concepts, but once there, they tended to increase their order to include other items. Technomic Ignite Consumer Order Insights data shows that 13% of chicken sandwich buyers also added strips or nuggets, boosting the average check.
But chicken sandwiches and drive-thrus had little to do with Wingstop’s success. The chicken chain that’s all about wings and favors freestanding units recorded a 31% surge in sales and was the second fastest-growing chain in the U.S. in 2020.
Chicken wings were a pandemic favorite, and Wingstop became a top destination to satisfy consumers’ craving. In fact, the chain added stores in 2020, expanding by 10%. Raising Cane’s and Popeyes were the only other top chicken concepts that expanded their footprint last year, growing by 11.4% and 5.3% respectively.
Based on the success of the past year, chicken chains have ambitious goals to expand through 2021 and 2022.
Raising Cain’s, which is 98% company-owned, plans to open 85 new restaurants this year and 100 next year, said Kumaran.
Zaxby’s is also on a growth trajectory. “Our goal is to open 25 restaurants in 2021 and 50 in 2022,” said Bulger. “We are exploring lots of opportunities within our footprint to improve speed of service, order ahead and the third-party delivery experience.”
Zaxby’s unit count was 909 in 2020.
And Hochman is predicting a record amount of restaurant growth and expansion for KFC over the next five years. “We’ve come out of the pandemic and economic challenges a stronger brand with higher AUVs. Now there is an opportunity to rebuild what KFC will look like in this post-pandemic world to better meet the modern customer’s needs,” he said.
In development are new restaurant designs that are optimized for digital ordering and off-premise meals to create frictionless customer experiences. KFC’s “Next Generation Prototype” includes an in-restaurant order pickup system for less employee contact and dedicated parking spots when customers order in advance at kfc.com for quick grab-and-go convenience, said Hochman.