McDonald’s finally enters the chicken sandwich wars

Competition is coming.
Competition is coming.
Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
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After nearly two years of trying to beat chicken with burgers, fast food’s giant has entered the chicken sandwich fray.

This week, McDonald’s becomes the latest US restaurant chain to jump on the chicken sandwich craze ignited by Popeyes two years ago, rolling out its version, with original, spicy, and deluxe variations, on Feb. 24.

Popeyes had long been an also-ran in the war for fast food supremacy, coasting on the appeal of its Louisiana-inspired offerings and a menu largely centered around chicken and shrimp. But that all changed in 2019 when it debuted its chicken sandwich in what became a historic event in the annals of quick dining. The sandwich, outwardly unremarkable, became a must-have treat, driven by hype and scarcity as much as taste.

The sandwich birthed too many thinkpieces, got a cashier held up at gunpoint, and disrupted Popeyes’ supply chain for months. It also broke the internet (and bits of the US national highway system) and raised the stock of its parent company, Restaurant Brands International.

While Wendy’s, Burger King, KFC and others raced to catch up, McDonald’s held off on a chicken sandwich makeover—until now.

“We’ve heard our customers loud and clear, and we know they’re craving more chicken options,” said McDonald’s executive Linda VanGosen in a statement. “We’re confident all chicken fans–from traditionalists to spice enthusiasts–will discover a new menu favorite they’ll come back for time and time again.”

While delicious and filling, chicken sandwiches are hardly new to fast food chains. Popeyes created a frenzy by first drumming up, and then leaning into the fervor its sandwich caused on the internet, driving excitement for its product and traffic to its site and standalone app with each exasperated opinion piece or joyful social media review. Along the way, it showed that internet buzz can turn a second-tier brand into a category leader.

Even if McDonald’s new sandwich winds up clogging roads near a strip mall or business complex near you in the coming weeks, Popeye’s may have already won the early publicity contest by hijacking McDonald’s online promotion.

To build excitement for its new offerings, McDonald’s rolled out limited-edition chicken-themed merchandise, like hoodies and a 7-inch vinyl record. McDonald’s directed users to the newly announced CHKNDrop.com, but neglected to look out for the misspellers of the world. Popeyes pounced at the opportunity, offering 500 free sandwiches to the first users to type in one of dozens of near-miss URLs like chikindrop.com

“If you’re a chronic misspeller, you have some guarantee that you won’t get a 404 not found message if you misspell their [website] when trying to type in your search bar,” said a statement from Popeye’s. “You may just find a free Popeyes Chicken Sandwich instead.” The 500 free sandwiches were quickly snapped up by eager fast foodies.

McDonald’s vast number of locations and its name recognition will probably make this chicken war an unfair fight in terms of raw sales, but McDonald’s is going to have to do more than rest on its arches to defeat Popeyes at its own game.