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How Popeyes kicked off the chicken sandwich wars


I have a distinct memory from four years ago this month. I was driving around Nevada covering the presidential campaign, and I was repeatedly pulling up Google Maps. I was not trying to find the campaign rally I was headed to. I was trying to see if I was anywhere near a Popeyes so I could try yet again to find one of their red-hot, brand-new chicken sandwiches.

America's new obsession with chicken sandwiches began four years ago, when Popeyes added one to its menu. It led to the internet losing its mind, and then it quickly led to other competitors rushing out their own. And since then, we have all kept arguing - spicy or original? Pickle or no pickle? Once or double fried?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Oh, baby, I got Popeyes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Sandwich right here. This sandwich right here.

DETROW: And now, Americans are happily caught between the warm slices of brioche bun and plenty of crunchy, juicy options. On average, Americans today eat close to 100 pounds of chicken a year, and you just know a lot of chicken has to be consumed in the form of an oh-so-tasty fried chicken sandwich. Jonathan Maze is editor-in-chief for Restaurant Business magazine, and he joins us from Dallas, where he is attending a restaurant conference. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JONATHAN MAZE: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: So I think one of the most interesting things is the fact that this has sustained itself. But before we get into that, let's just talk about that original moment four years ago. What do you think it was that made this stick? Just good branding? Like, what do you think happened?

MAZE: You know, it was really a perfect storm. It's hard to really put your finger on exactly what happened. Nothing has ever been quite like that. It was a brilliant tweak. It was a very good sandwich, and then it just took off.

DETROW: And just to remind everybody, it launches in mid-August, and then by this time in 2019, people are lining up around the block. People are rushing. Popeyes sometimes, you know, loses control of the crowds. The chicken sandwiches go scare. Some people were trying to resell them at exorbitant prices - just mania for a chicken sandwich.

MAZE: Yeah. And they ran out in, like, less than two weeks and had to pull it off the menu and then train their restaurants, work the supply chain to get enough supplies for chicken sandwiches. And then they reintroduced it in November, and it continued to go crazy, which blows my mind because if you take a product off the menu, you lose some energy like that. That is what we all thought was going to happen, and it didn't. It was incredible.

DETROW: And then so many other fast-food restaurants try to get in on this to the point where everyone brands it the chicken sandwich wars. Four years later, do you feel like that phrasing is still accurate? Because I still feel like I see - and I often order - chicken sandwiches everywhere I go.

MAZE: Yeah. I think the branding still works. We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 restaurant chains, based on our account, that came up with an upgraded chicken sandwich. For a while, it got to the point that you had to have a higher-quality chicken sandwich in the fast-food business if you were going to sell chicken sandwiches. It was a price of doing business.

DETROW: You described right there high-quality chicken sandwiches. I mean, how would you describe that? - because the basic concept of a chicken sandwich is pretty straightforward. But like you said, there was a quality increase. There was a production increase. What is it that makes a chicken sandwich high quality?

MAZE: Well, you have to have sort of whole-breast fillet. You know, you're not really going to overly process it. We had all kinds of efforts on that in terms of how the breading was, how - Burger King came out with one which was hand-breaded on site and very complicated, as it turned out. You have a higher-quality bun, a brioche bun, something along those lines. You just upgraded it from the traditional ingredients that you would find at a fast-food brand, and you had to have a good chicken sandwich, really, or at least that was the thought.

DETROW: I will be fully honest. We purchased a Popeyes chicken sandwich to have in the studio during this conversation, and I decided to take a bite during that answer. I'm sorry.

MAZE: I've had plenty.

DETROW: I think to me, the thing that makes this renaissance of chicken sandwiches is the placement of pickles. I feel like I really appreciate a solid, crispy pickle in the middle of the chicken sandwich.

MAZE: It kind of makes the chicken sandwich. It really does. I mean, the pickle is, in my opinion, a necessity.

DETROW: How have sales been? Because the hype seems to have kept up. You talked about the fact that it's a mainstay on the menu. Are we all still buying as many chicken sandwiches now as we were back then? And how big of a force are they in sales for places like Popeyes?

MAZE: Sure. At Popeyes, the hype died down a bit. You have a lot of competitors in the business, but they still have a higher level of sales overall now than before they came out with their chicken sandwich - quite a bit. It was a big, big deal to Popeyes. It changed the face of that brand, and it is roughly maintained.

DETROW: Do you have a personal favorite? Can you journalistically say what your favorite is?

MAZE: Yeah, I can say.

DETROW: All right. What is it?

MAZE: Shake Shack.

DETROW: Shake Shack.

MAZE: I've been on the record. Shake Shack has the best chicken sandwich - yeah, for sure.

DETROW: I've had that. It's good, very delicious.

MAZE: I just really like the flavor of the sandwich. I mean, I've - I think they could have just almost ditched the burgers at Shake Shack and just came up with Chicken Shack instead.

DETROW: That's Jonathan Maze, editor-in-chief for Restaurant Business magazine, joining us from Dallas. Thank you so much.

MAZE: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.