While chicken dinners used to be something you could only get from the colonel, they have become one of the most sought-after meals at any fast-food restaurant – especially the fried chicken sandwich in all its glorious forms. Let’s look back at the growth of chicken restaurant chains and what’s next in restaurant trends.
It’s Definitive – The Chicken Came First
Lee Cummings and Harold Omer first opened “Harold’s Take Home” restaurant in Lima, Ohio, in 1966. This is where Lee first introduced his Famous Recipe® chicken after spending several years working with his uncle, Colonel Sanders, at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The first chicken restaurant was Kentucky Fried Chicken, which got its start in 1930 when Harland Sanders purchased a roadside hotel and started serving his special recipe chicken there. Kentucky Fried Chicken was followed by Chik-Fil-A in 1946, followed by Lee’s Famous in 1966, Colonel Sanders nephew which soon became a regional favorite and eventually by Popeyes in 1972. Feeling the competition, in 1980, McDonald’s added a chicken sandwich to their menu, followed by chicken nuggets in 1981. The original McDonald’s chicken sandwich was a bust; chicken nuggets, however, became a game-changer. They reintroduced the McChicken in 1988 to better success. Burger King and Wendy’s followed suit in 1990 with their own versions.
Chicken Sandwich Competition Heats Up
Even though chicken and chicken sandwiches have been a mainstay for decades, competition in fried chicken sandwiches didn’t reach peak fight-in-the-drive-through level until 2019, with the introduction of Popeye’s wildly popular crispy chicken sandwich. Burger King then introduced the Ch’King in 2021. Burger King has now announced they’re retiring the Ch’King and replacing it with four different sandwiches – the BK Bacon & Swiss Cheese Royal Crispy Chicken Sandwich, the BK Southern BBQ Royal Crispy Chicken Sandwich, the BK Royal Crispy Chicken Sandwich, and the BK Spicy Royal Crispy Chicken. Even Taco Bell has joined the chicken trend.
If We’ve Hit Pinnacle Chicken – What’s Next?
We won’t even jump into the argument about who has the best chicken sandwich, because that’s a fight we can’t win. Instead, we offer our predictions on what the next trends might be that cause hour-long drive-through lines and pandemonium.
Plant-based foods – All the things we love in a chicken sandwich, without the meat. Between consumer demand for more sustainable options, health-consciousness about meat consumption, and an awareness of animal practices, plant-based foods are only going to continue to not only take up more space on grocery shelves but become a more likely option at restaurants.
According to GFI, “Plant-based foods have outpaced total foods in both dollar and unit sales growth for the past three years. Dollar sales of total plant-based foods grew 54 percent over the past three years, while those of total foods grew just 2 percent.”
Ramen dishes – Ramen has seen a huge surge in popularity. Pop culture, viral food trends on TikTok, and the popularity of anime have all driven the growth in popularity of this trend. It makes a very versatile addition to any menu, with nearly limitless variations. Ramen can also feed the demand for plant-based food choices, with a wide array of vegan options available. Other Asian-inspired foods will also continue to grow in popularity.
Mood foods – This clever name describes foods and drinks infused with cannabis but may also include psychotropic mushrooms in the future as the mood altering substance becomes more widely accepted. While you may not see many mood foods make it to fast food menus (there are still laws regarding driving while under the influence to consider), expect fast casual and QSR restaurants to jump on board this popular trend where legal
Non-alcoholic beverages – Non-alcoholic beverages are growing up, with many options available for adults choosing not to imbibe, and more to come. According to Nielsen, sales of non-alcoholic drinks in the U.S. grew 20.6% over the last year. Younger generations are opting for sobriety while older generations are more health conscious. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “a growing list of celebs are speaking out about alcohol-free, sober and sober-curious lifestyles (Ben Affleck and wife Jennifer Lopez, Anne Hathaway, Chrissy Teigen, Drew Barrymore, and Kit Harington among them).”
Will Chicken Really Go Away?
There’s no need for any ruffled feathers. National Restaurant Association predicts that the fervor over the quintessential fried chicken sandwich will not die down and instead we will see the emergence of Chicken Sandwiches 3.0. Chicken will remain a popular menu item. Burger King was not the only chain to announce new chicken sandwiches; Popeyes launched a new Blackened Chicken Sandwich, Wendy’s announced a new Italian Mozzarella Chicken Sandwich, and Wingstop relaunched their chicken sandwich.
Flatbread chicken sandwiches will also make a comeback in 2023, thanks to carb-conscious consumers looking for healthier choices when dining out. These healthier versions of the chicken sandwich can be found in Atlanta, where KFC is currently testing fried chicken wraps. Salads are also getting the chicken treatment, with globally inspired chicken salads that feature ingredients like chow Mein noodles and cotija cheese gaining popularity on fast-food menus like Wendy’s.
As restaurants focus on balancing automation and building agility and social purpose into strategy, the menu items that do trend over the next few years will be driven by a desire to deliver consumers the best experience possible. And yes, chicken will be on the menu.