Why Taco Bell Entered the Chicken Sandwich War

Turns out it’s more than just a silly game of fast food one-upmanship

Photo: Taco Bell

In summer 2019, Popeyes fired the first shot in the chicken sandwich war, going after chicken king Chick-fil-A and vowing to take no prisoners. After just two weeks, the first battle reports were in: The Popeyes sandwich was a runaway hit. Straight out of the gate, Popeyes had grabbed more than 30% of the already-competitive chicken sandwich market, announcing it had plumb sold out due to astronomical demand. People trying to get a grasp of this chicken sandwich mania blamed Chick-fil-A and its viral, decade-long growth into a 2,500-location phenomenon, surging past Wendy’s and Burger King in revenue. But there was no doubt that Popeyes’ newcomer had struck a nerve.

All of that was before Covid-19. What we thought of as a war in 2019 has ballooned into a grizzled, multiyear saga. According to one survey, chicken sandwich sales grew a whopping 420% in 2020, with Americans ordering 2.5 billion fried chicken sandwiches — roughly eight for every man, woman, and child in the country. Chick-fil-A, surging back from Popeyes’ guerrilla attack, had a 45% market share, with Popeyes halving its 2019 peak and falling to 16%.

Just in the last month, though, we have three new combatants: One is McDonald’s, which this week released its new $5.99 “Crispy Chicken Sandwich,” a straight rip-off of Chick-fil-A and Popeyes, garnished with the same simple pickle. Arch-rival Burger King announced its own brand-new chicken sandwich on Wednesday.

But the third competitor is far more surprising: Taco Bell. Next month, it’s introducing the “Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco.” Debuting March 11 in Nashville and Charlotte, North Carolina, the item is priced right, at $2.49, and is really just a dressed-up version of an item already on the menu — the Crispy Tortilla Chicken (nestled in “taco bread”) — which makes it a shrewd economic play for the chain.

I immediately got a temperature check on this latest contender. The gauge was my teenage daughters: The older one, after dinner, often insists we drive to Taco Bell so she can have something on hand to eat later; her younger sister only orders some form of fried chicken at restaurants, regardless of the cuisine. The older one responded that she would definitely want to try Taco Bell’s sandwich taco “‘cuz Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches and Popeyes chicken sandwiches are AMAZING.” As for the younger one, she was a bit more skeptical: “Why are they making chicken sandwiches? Maybe business has been bad.”

Aren’t both answers precisely the point? Fast or near-fast food has been one of the very few Covid-19 winners: Chipotle, Domino’s, and the chicken franchises have had sales off the charts over the last year. Taco Bell, owned by Yum Brands, has been meh, and now it wants to share in the bonanza. Taco Bell isn’t haphazardly mocking up a Frankenstein menu item — it’s doing it because the chicken sandwich war, silly or hyped as it may sound, is real, and fast-food chains are making tons of money off of it. Even as it’s trolling Popeyes with its Crispy Chicken Taco Sandwich, Taco Bell is consciously aware of where the action is, and is getting in on it.

Interestingly, Popeyes was quick to notice Taco Bell’s strategy. It went to TikTok this week with a tongue-in-cheek video suggesting that it now effectively has tacos, too — so long as you hold its sandwiches on their side.

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.

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