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Friday, January 15, 2021

In Market: 2019: The Bird is the Word

The year 2019 won’t be remembered as the year a president was impeached or the year the Skywalker saga ended. Nope, in 2019, the bird was the word, to paraphrase The Trashmen’s hit from 1963.

The bird, in this case, was the once-lowly chicken sandwich, driven to new culinary heights by an unlikely, but plucky (ha!) contender in the fast-food sweepstakes: Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen.

The lines for the sandwich were monumental. The chain, acquired by Burger King-owner Restaurant Brands International in 2017, was expecting to sell about 60 of the tasty sandwiches per day per store, but ended up selling about 1,000, according to one analyst estimate. The demand out clucked supply and the public had to wait as the chain retrenched. There was tension in the lines and one person was killed in Maryland during the ensuing chicken sandwich mania. CBS This Morning co-host Gayle King tried it out. One person listed a sandwich on eBay for $7,000. The sandwich sold out by the end of August, ruffling a lot of feathers among consumers. But the demand was still there.

The chicken sandwich that started it all was – surprisingly – Popeyes’ first. Debuting in August, it costs about $3.99 and comes in two versions, regular and spicy. It comes in a foil bag – like another chain that has Chick in the name – features a chicken breast filet that is battered and breaded in a new buttermilk coating. It is served with barrel-cured pickles and mayonnaise – spicy in the spicy version – on a toasted buttery brioche bun. It’s good, though I have to say the sandwich quality can vary a lot between various Popeyes outlets.

How did Popeyes’ biggest product launch in 30 years create such egg-citement? Part of the groundwork was laid by that other fast-food outlet that uses cows in their advertising campaign. But when Popeyes’ new sandwich hit stores in mid-August, it ignited a social media feather dust-up of epic proportions. Shake Shack and Wendy’s joined in the fowl Twitter fun, earning a hashtag: #chickenwars.

The sandwich also garnered rave reviews. One of those reviews was local, by one TC Fleming, a former radio personality on The Ticket, who wrote a review in the Dallas Observer calling the chicken sandwich “a game-changer in the fast-food world.” TC may be best known on the little Ticket for his coining of the term, “Ragonk,” during a broadcast in 2014. TC does a lot of things – driving an Uber, working for political candidates – but he also hosts a podcast with current Ticket producer Jake Kemp called It’s Just Banter, which is usually worth a listen, particularly when you’re up at night doing AM Newsletters like I am. TC takes his chicken-sandwich reviewing seriously, recently taking the day off to drive to Houston, which is a test market for McDonald’s newest chicken sandwich offering. (Spoiler: He says it’s not worth the drive.) TC’s Popeyes review got mentioned in a New York Times story, which is a pretty nice note on your resume.

The vaunted sandwich returned in November and Popeyes resumed its social media campaign, tweaking its main competitor with a video noting that Popeyes is open on Sunday – unlike its more reverent rival.

As if it’s not enough to make a chicken sandwich that’s a hip, pop culture phenomenon, in December, Popeyes partnered with UglyChristmasSweater.com to bring a Popeyes-themed ugly Christmas sweater celebrating the sandwich to a party near you. Unfortunately, like the chicken sandwich was earlier this year, the sweater appears to be sold out.

Keeping its chicken foot in the pop cultural waters, Popeyes has jumped on the news that a work by artist Maurizio Cattelan – a banana duct-taped to a board – sold for $120,000. According to the New York Post, Popeyes offered a chicken sandwich duct-taped to a canvas and listed for $120,003.99 at the San Paul Gallery Urban Art display. Profits from the sale would go to the Popeyes Foundation, the chain’s nonprofit organization.

And that’s why 2019 was the year that the bird was the word. See you in 2020.

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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