One year ago today, Popeye’s fired the first salvo in the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars by introducing its spicy chicken sandwich, which transcended from Instagram fad to cultural phenomenon as quickly as you could say “combo, please.”
Of course, those were far simpler times, when we could stand in lines mere inches from fellow humans for a taste of the elusive bird, and when our social media feeds were populated with dueling jibes from fast-food mascots instead of dire news about rising coronavirus cases and grim economic forecasts.
Still, despite all that has changed in the past 365 days, the battle for poultry supremacy shows no signs of abating. Fast-food companies are continuing to refine and expand their offerings, which we’re wolfing down apace. And there’s no indication that America’s collective obsession with a crunchy bit of bird on a bun is going anywhere.
“It captured our imagination, and we’re still hooked on them,” says David Portalatin, a food-industry analyst at the market-research firm NPD Group. “The chicken sandwich has not relinquished its position at the top of our wish lists.”
Portalatin notes that even as the restaurant industry has cratered during the pandemic, with sales down by 24 percent, sales of fried chicken sandwiches are actually up 1.2% over last year. In the 12 months ending in June, Americans consumed an astonishing 2.3 billion of them.
To feed our seemingly bottomless appetite, this week, Wendy’s introduced another spicy chicken sandwich to its lineup, a budget-minded patty for its “4 for $4” menu.
And it looks like fast-food industry Goliath McDonald’s will soon—finally—be jumping into the deep fryer. Since late last year, the Golden Arches has been teasing the debut of its “premium” sandwich, something franchisees have long been clamoring for to better compete with the drive-thrus next door. The company’s new CEO recently told Time magazine he’s “feeling good about where we’re at” with the “innovation in chicken.”
More evidence that we’re only seeing the (wing) tip of the iceberg? KFC, too, is testing another entry in the market, this one with a bigger fillet, thicker-cut pickles and a fancier bun than in its original.
Although the vast majority of these sandwiches are being served up by fast-food chains, artisanal offerings abound, and plenty of higher-end restaurants around the country are putting their spins on craggy-coated cuts topped with such things as peach slaw and miso jam.
It’s dominating delivery as well: Online ordering services Grubhub and DoorDash report that chicken sandwiches top their most-popular items.
It’s not hard to understand why we’re Chicken Sandwich Nation these days: We crave comfort food, and there’s a decades-long trend of chicken eclipsing beef as our protein of choice. Many of the sandwiches are being served from takeout windows, whose popularity has soared during the pandemic.
Which brings us to that new Wendy’s menu item, and my sneaking suspicion that this unassuming little puck is not just a mere sandwich, it’s a paper-wrapped Trojan horse bent on world domination.
Hear me out here: In terms of taste alone, the dubiously named Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich is forgettable. Its reddish hue and pepper-dotted coating overpromise the wan heat. The patty is pancake-flat and formed from chicken parts, like a squished nugget. Its texture is springy and bouncy, which are good adjectives if you’re hyping a shampoo, but not so much for a chicken disc.
And it’s dry, with only a smear of mayo to juice it up. I far prefer the chain’s beefier (can you use that word to describe chicken?) spicy chicken sandwich, which is made of an actual breast and gets an assist from a tomato slice.
This thin patty isn’t about to dethrone its heartier rivals—but that seems to be the goal. This gal isn’t trying to be the star of the show, the Beyoncé who will leave Destiny’s Child in its rearview mirror. It seems to be designed for a supporting role: When you’re buying it as just one element of the “4 for 4″ deal,” it can easily blend in alongside the suite of fries and nuggets and sodas.
And that’s when it dawned on me: This sandwich really just wants to be . . . a side order. Which might mean that just as chicken sandwiches usurped burgers, now they are coming for fries? Apparently, there’s no containing the march of the chicken sandwich. Resistance seems futile.
And besides, given everything that’s happened in 2020, why would we want to?