Late last month, KFC launched a new crispy fried chicken sandwich in test, pitting its entry against the blockbuster from Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. Even during the height of the pandemic, Popeyes same-store sales rose more than 40% through the third week in May, with much of that surge coming from the chain’s buzzy chicken sandwich introduced late last year.
Meanwhile, little Texas-based Golden Chick has been quietly preparing its move into the chicken sandwich wars. At the end of May, the 190-unit chain entered the battleground by launching its Big & Golden Chicken Sandwich systemwide.
“Pre-pandemic, this was going to be our biggest initiative of 2020,” says J. Sullivan, Golden Chick’s corporate executive chef. “As a fried chicken concept, we had a real gap in the menu—no chicken fillet sandwich. We prioritized filling that gap, as we saw how all the buzz around chicken sandwiches was driving sales and traffic at QSRs.” Popeyes aside, Chick-fil-A also has a lot of skin the game.
But Sullivan wasn’t aiming for a “me too” product. When he began R&D last summer, his goal was to compete by differentiating this sandwich with a Golden Chick spin.
“Working from the outside in, let’s start with the bun,” he says. A Golden Chick signature is its airy, fresh-baked yeast rolls, made hourly at each location to accompany orders of fried chicken and chicken tenders. “We wanted to recreate that experience in a bun,” says Sullivan. Golden Chick uses the same recipe as a base but the dough is formed into bigger rounds and the buns are baked once a day in the morning so they can cool and firm up to make them sturdier for slicing.
“Bread is an afterthought with most big chains,” says Sullivan. “It’s delivered frozen, from a manufacturer, and sometimes they run out. We can micromanage our supply because we make them ourselves and can never run out.”
Next up is the chicken, another differentiator, according to the chef. Golden Chick sources 5-ounce boneless breast filets, then marinates them in the same brine as its bone-in chicken. “Brining is the best thing you can do for chicken breast before you throw it into boiling oil,” he says. “That makes it moist and juicy.”
The size is also key; you don’t want more bun than chicken, and the weight and dimension of this filet stands up to the larger bun, Sullivan adds. The chicken is hand-breaded in the chain’s seasoned flour, then dipped in batter and floured again before frying. “We make it fresh, but it can be held for about 15 minutes so it’s the exact right temperature by the time an order comes in,” he says. With a focus on drive-thru business, “we got really good at speed of service during the pandemic, constantly rotating in freshly made product.”
The next component is Golden Chick’s signature Lotta Zing sauce. Sullivan describes it as a blend of sweet, savory, hot and umami, borrowing flavors from neighboring Louisiana and Mexico. It marries well with the salty and slightly acidic pickles, the final layer. “We source a thin pickle slice to just cut through the fried chicken and bun but not overpower the sandwich,” he says.
Once all the sandwich components were perfected, the staff was trained to execute the build in a very precise way to maximize the flavor profile and texture. Each bun is hand-cut but not sliced all the way through “to better hold the chicken,” says Sullivan. Then a light application of Zing sauce goes on both the top and bottom of the bun, followed by five pickles strategically placed on the bun bottom. “We want customers to get a little pickle flavor and crunch in each bite,” says Sullivan. Some competitors use only two pickle slices, which is not enough, in his opinion. Last in is the warm, crispy chicken fillet.
Although the training and execution are a little more complex for a QSR, “we made sure it fit into our operational flow,” Sullivan says. The scratchmade sandwich sells for $3.99. “We wanted to give guests a good value, and we are able to keep the price down because we bake our own buns, which can run our competitors 25% of the food cost.”
Late in 2019, Golden Chick tested the sandwich in two Texas markets, chosen for their strong operations and positioning as a media oasis. Sales and traffic shot up, says Sullivan. Two Dallas stores also offered the sandwich, with no media push except for some point-of-purchase materials. The test was also successful in Dallas, getting up to the same level as the other markets, even though the sandwich wasn’t promoted with media, he adds.
The May chainwide launch is planned as a deliberately softer rollout process. With the pandemic still impacting the industry, “we are being a little cautious. We won’t advertise on TV right now and are taking our time to make sure we can execute the sandwich smoothly with our suppliers, hourly workers and operations teams,” says Sullivan.