OPINIONOperations

The nugget-ification of America cannot be stopped

Can the nation's collective palate evolve beyond the chicken nuggets they loved as toddlers? Or will we finally reach peak nugget and find another craveable protein to dip in all those terrific sauces out there?
Taco Bell nuggets
Taco Bell nuggets are being tested in Minneapolis.|Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

Nancy:

So, Lisa, it wasn’t exactly a miscall of the magnitude of “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the banner headline from the Chicago Daily Tribune that incorrectly named Thomas E. Dewey the winner of the 1948 presidential election, but it was still a gaffe of some proportion.

CNBC ran a feature that proclaimed that Chicken Nugget Demand Is Flatlining and pointed the finger at three culprits: health concerns, (negative) media attention and new competition. The competitive threat referred to here is chicken strips, described as a “more wholesome, grown-up version of a nugget.” Industry analysts predicted that nuggets themselves would be marginalized on the menu.

OK, to be fair, that story ran in 2019, but it was disproved relatively quickly; by summer 2022, Forbes was telling its readers Why Chicken Nuggets Could Be the Next Big Competitive Category in Fast Food. This turnabout resulted from KFC’s intro of nuggets last year and noted that Popeyes had jumped into the fray the year before, as had Boston Market with its own Rotisserie Chicken Nuggets. 

Which brings us to the present day. Taco Bell, of all brands, has been in test with its own Crispy Chicken Nuggets right here in my very own hometown of Minneapolis. Of course, as soon as I read the news, I rushed out to give them a try. 

You won’t be surprised to learn that I have opinions I’d love to share with you on the product, and, more importantly, that I am dying to get your take on this. Because, while I tried them in the store, you were invited to an exclusive press preview at chain headquarters, which absolutely boosts you up the pecking order on this subject.

Dish, please: What was your experience and what did you think of the item?

Lisa:

I did indeed have the opportunity to try the nuggets at Taco Bell’s very spiffy test kitchen at HQ.

And, as chicken nuggets go, they were good. They were really small tenders, in that they were made of white meat, with a pleasing crispness. I give them props for not using chicken-flavored filler.

But it was a good chicken nugget that could really have been found anywhere, and I have to admit I was expecting something a bit more creative from Taco Bell, where we’ve seen fried chicken do so much more than nugget. There, we’ve seen fried chicken as a taco shell, chip and taco filling.

But this is my beef with all this chicken.

Americans, it seems, just cannot imagine a fast-food menu without some form of fried chicken bits on it, whether nuggets, tenders, fingers or sandwich. And though some chains are doing interesting things with those chicken bits—I am a fan of Dave’s Hot Chicken and the many, many others diving into that space—most are just throwing some chicken on the menu because they know people just want chicken.

It's like American consumers never really evolve beyond the menu items they learn to love as toddlers.

Consider the huge success of Raising Cane’s, where people can find an excellent chicken tender (“finger”), crinkle-cut fries, a big piece of bread, slaw, sauce. And that’s it. That’s all they do. It’ll probably never change.

And Americans just love it.

Am I alone in wanting more?

But, Nancy, you’re the menu expert. What did you think?

Nancy:

Well, you’re certainly right about our collective inability to step away from the nugs. A recent survey from the researchers at Statista indicated that 5% of their respondents ate nuggets daily or nearly every day, and 18% consume them weekly. And KFC reported selling more than a million nuggets a mere eight weeks after introducing the item in March.

Bottom line: It’s a tough time to be a chicken, Lisa, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. I just read that one of my favorite animated films is set for a sequel. The upcoming “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” follows our hapless hens as “the whole of chicken-kind faces a grave new threat.” I bet we can both guess what that is.   

But I take a more sanguine view of our collective fried poultry obsession. The way I look at it, nuggets are the perfect product for this moment: comforting, tasty, inexpensive and customizable by dipping sauce. Plus, fried chicken is an enormously satisfying product we don’t make at home.

Having said that, I do have a chicken bone to pick with you. Your positive experience with the new Taco Bell entry was pretty much the opposite of mine. The batch I had were generally flavorless and lacking in texture. I couldn’t taste the jalapeño-buttermilk marinade, and the two sauces were meh.

Recognizing that I’m not an expert on this category, however, and wanting to be adequately prepared for our exchange, I did a comparative taste test of Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Chick-fil-A. That’s about three times more nuggets than I’ve eaten in my entire life, and Taco Bell still came up way short. I thought McD’s were predictably poppable little guys, okay for snacking, while I found Chick-fil-A’s to be damn good. Honestly, they made me see why this product is so appealing and addictive.

So when you say you want more, what more do you want?

Lisa:

Nancy, maybe it’s not that I want more, but that I want less.

This rush to satisfy the inevitable nugget customer is creating an overly nuggeted landscape.

Wingstop expects it will soon reach 50% boneless chicken within its mix soon. In the second quarter, it was already 43%.

Starbird earlier this year debuted an elevated nugget on its (already chicken) menu, and even launched a Starbird Nuggets virtual brand on DoorDash and Uber Eats where people can order everything from a four-piece kids meal to a 100-nugget platter.

Thank goodness, at least, for Burger King’s chicken fries, which come in what is perhaps the most adorable chicken-face packaging. And they figured out how to make chicken nuggets even easier to eat in the car while driving.

Of the Top 500 restaurant brands, nearly 35% of QSR operators have chicken nuggets or tenders on their menu according to our sister brand Technomic’s Ignite Menu data.

What makes me sad is that many operators will read that statistic and think that means there’s room for more.

Sure, the industry is going through a sauce moment, and nuggets are really just a vehicle.

But I challenge the industry to think past the nugget. Let’s think of another highly craveable, portable, affordable protein option that could be meal or snack. Something that will allow restaurants to show off their sauce game.

I’m thinking falafel, samosas, dumplings, cheese puffs, pigs in a blanket, or some kind of food on a stick.

Who doesn’t love food on a stick?

It’s time for Americans to graduate to Big Person food. Let’s leave the nuggets for the toddlers.

 

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