How Popeyes, McDonald's came out on top in the chicken wars of 2021

From the very beginning of 2021, the chicken sandwich war between fast food giants captured the attention of consumers.

A seemingly endless batch of poultry-themed menu items from Burger King (QSR), Wendy's (WEN), McDonald's (MCD), KFC, and even Taco Bell made lots of headlines — and, as it turns out, drew in lots of customers.

According to data intelligence platform Placer.ai, the big bet on those entrees paid off, but Popeyes (QSR) remained on top. The restaurant chain first dropped its chicken sandwich entree in 2019 to challenge Chick-fil-A at its own game. 

"Data suggests that chicken sandwiches continue to benefit quick-service restaurants," R.J. Hottovy, Placer.ai's head of analytical research, told Yahoo Finance. 

"Most chains are working to return to pre- pandemic foot traffic levels, but Popeyes remained well ahead of its 2019 visit trends in 2021," he added. 

The analyst noted the boost supported Popeye's claims that it reached new customers thanks to its savory sandwich. During the year, declines in the chain's foot traffic were fairly modest, according to Hottovy. 

For Chick-fil-A, the excitement around its chicken sandwich may have dimmed down, data suggests. Hottovy said it "continues to trail its pre-pandemic visitation trends;" however 2019 was "an exceptional year for its chicken sandwiches" making it hard to beat.

On the other hand, guests seem to be enjoying Chik-fil-A's chicken sandwich more, according to a survey from restaurant review aggregator Merchant Centric. Conducted between January and June of this year, respondents scored Chik-fil-A with an average star rating of 4.39, compared to Popeye’s average rating of 3.39.

For newcomers like McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC, the nearly 2-year long wait to bring a chicken sandwich to the table may have been worth it, according to Placer.ai.

The Golden Arches debuted its chicken sandwich in late February with three different versions: Crispy, Spicy and Crispy Deluxe. It saw foot traffic slightly increase the week of March 1st following the debut, down only 17% compared to 2019 levels. That's compared to foot traffic down 29.6% the week of February 15th prior to the launch. 

McDonald's seems to have been able to maintain the momentum with other efforts made in addition to new menu items like its new growth strategy, including the three ‘D’s:’ digital, delivery and drive-thru. Foot traffic at McDonald's was down just 3% during the week of December 6th, 2021.

Taco Bell (YUM) unveiled a unique entree into the war with its Chicken Sandwich Taco the same week as McDonald's. The chain saw foot traffic down 34.9% compared to 2019 the week prior, which ticked up to -27.0% the week of March 1st, 2021. Afterward, visits were down just 10.8% the week of March 15th, 2021. As of December 6th, foot traffic is off by only 4.9%. 

KFC rolled out a quarter-pound sandwich at the end of February for $3.99, which may have given foot traffic a bit of a boost as well, moving from -37% the week of March 22nd to -23.9% the week of March 8th, 2021. During the week of December 6th, foot traffic was down 17%.

Meanwhile, Burger King released its entree the 'Ch'King' in late May, a hand breaded chicken fillet topped with Burger King's own specialty mayonnaise-based sauce, plus pickles on a brioche potato bun. 

Following the release, foot traffic was down 4.2% in the first week of June, compared to -13.1% prior to its release. The momentum may not have stuck around however, especially as consumers are spooked by the recent rise in COVID-19 cases from the omicron variant. As of December 6th, foot traffic at Burger King is down 10.7%.

Brooke DiPalma is a producer and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter at @BrookeDiPalma or email her at [email protected]

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