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Full-service chains scratch their way into the chicken wars

Casual- and family-dining chains are adding premium fried items as new lures.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The chicken wars are spilling out of the quick-service market and into the higher-ticket world of knives and forks. A number of casual- and family-dining chains are adding premium bone-in fried chicken and “crispy” filet sandwiches in hopes the poultry products reinvigorating limited-service sales will work their magic in a sit-down setting.

So far, so good, the early adopters report. Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores, for instance, attributed its 2.1% rise in same-store sales during the fourth quarter of 2019 to a 3.6% rise in ticket averages, which the family chain in turn tied directly to the addition of a new fried chicken line. Included in the new Signature Fried Chicken line are Southern Fried Chicken, Homestyle Chicken and the Homestyle Chicken BLT Sandwich.

The launch has been so successful that even archrival Denny’s gave a nod of admiration during its conference call this week with financial analysts. “My congratulations to them,” said CEO John Miller.

Chili’s Grill & Bar has high but qualified expectations for its new fried chicken sandwich, the Chicky Chicky Bleu, so called because it features bleu cheese crumbles and blue cheese dressing. The sandwich is “awesome,” says Wyman Roberts, CEO of parent company Brinker International and an executive not known for his effusiveness.

“Will it turn the business around overnight and have a huge impact immediately? No,” Roberts told financial analysts at the end of January. “But over the long haul, we're seeing that impact, and it's all showing up in better guest satisfaction metrics.”

Roberts said the chicken sandwich provided the added benefit of being easy to integrate because it’s only one product, and not a completely new one at that. Chili’s essentially opted for a higher-caliber chicken filet. “We didn’t do a broad menu launch that adds complexity for operators and confusion for guests,” the CEO explained. “Instead, we upgraded the quality of a key product and introduced one bold new menu item to keep consumers engaged and drive frequency.”

One of the latest full-service chains to peck its way into the premium fried chicken sandwich market is Famous Dave’s, a brand better known for its ribs and brisket. The new sandwich, the fourth on the menu to feature chicken, appears to be the first one built with a fried filet. It’s topped with “comeback sauce,” a Southern garnish that combines Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and mayo, and is priced to compete with quick-service options at $5.

Ruby Tuesday priced its entrant, the Hot Honey & Bacon Chicken Sandwich, at $7.99.

Buffalo Wild Wings last year lifted the napkin off two crispy chicken sandwiches: the Nashville Hot Chicken Sandwich and the Southern Chicken Sandwich.

The latest entrant in the chicken wars is Arooga’s Grille House & Sports Bar, which also added a pair of fried filet sandwiches, the Nashville Hot and the OG Chicken. Both feature a hand-breaded crispy chicken breast on a brioche roll. The operation trash-talks that the introduction is effectively a grenade lobbed into the midst of the quick-service chicken wars.

The flurry of introductions follows the splashy launch of a fried chicken sandwich by Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen last August. Units of the chain quickly ran out of the item because of unexpected demand. The sandwich’s return to the menu was cited as a major reason for Popeyes’ 38% leap in same-store sales for the fourth quarter of 2019.


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