Popeyes’ chicken sandwich: Inside the rise and fall of an icon

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Where were you during the Chicken Sandwich War of 2019?

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of deep-fried madness for fast-food chicken chains. Popeyes has undeniably been at the center of the chaos, thanks to its remarkably good chicken sandwich.

It was a sandwich that launched a thousand Twitter battles. A menu item that ruined thousands of Popeyes workers’ weeks. And, unbeknownst to many, a sandwich that many customers had been quietly enjoying for weeks.

Then, on Tuesday, it was all over — for now. Popeyes officially announced the chicken sandwich sold out, only two weeks after its launch.

Here is the full story of the rise and fall of the most hyped menu item of the year.

The birth of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich

Popeyes.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The chicken sandwich is experiencing a moment in fast food.

This moment began well before Popeyes’ new sandwich appeared on menus. Chick-fil-A — which became the third largest chain in the US by sales in 2018, despite having far fewer locations than most rivals — has seen incredible success with its chicken sandwich, something that sparked interest in competitors.

Buffalo Wild Wings and Cracker Barrel started testing new chicken sandwiches. McDonald’s franchisees called on the corporate office to make developing a top-tier chicken sandwich its top priority. And Popeyes began developing its own sandwich.

Read more: Every chain from McDonald’s to Buffalo Wild Wings wants to be Chick-fil-A

Jose Cil, CEO of Restaurant Brands International, the parent company of Popeyes, Burger King, and Tim Hortons, said that the company noticed growing boneless chicken sales. At Popeyes, more people were buying tenders. At Burger King, chicken sandwich sales were up. It was time, executives decided, for Popeyes to have a chicken sandwich of its own.

“It’s a segment within quick service that we think is growing and growing for the long term,” Cil recently told Business Insider.

“It’s not just a trend here in the US, we think it’s a growing trend in Europe,” Cil added. “It’s a growing trend in Asia and Latin America.”

The launch of a legend

Popeyes.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider

A number of Popeyes locations started serving the sandwich earlier in 2019, revamping locations to add new equipment, including toasters. In early August, Business Insider’s Irene Jiang happened to order the sandwich at Popeyes while conducting a chicken sandwich taste test.

Before the hype, Jiang had the chance to give the Popeyes chicken sandwich a clear-eyed, unbiased review. In her unclouded judgement, Popeyes had created a chicken sandwich that far outpaced the rivals’ offerings.

“The chicken was incomparably crispy, juicy, and fresh, and all the elements of the sandwich were well balanced,” Jiang reported. “Each bite was bursting with flavor. And its price tag is also the most appealing — at $4, it’s the cheapest sandwich in the lineup.”

Read more: I ate 8 chicken sandwiches from fast-food chains, and the best was also the cheapest

A few weeks later, Popeyes announced it was launching the chicken sandwich at locations across the US.

Overall, the launch on Monday, August 12 was a pretty standard affair. The chain debuted the sandwich at Sweet Dixie Kitchen, a trendy Los Angeles restaurant that previously served chicken sandwiches using fried chicken from Popeyes. Popeyes fans seemed excited, but there was no reason to believe the sandwich would be something the majority of the US would think that much about.

Then the tweets began.

The tweet heard ’round the world

Popeyes.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider

Most of early social media support of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich appears to have been a grassroots movement, a rarity in the sea of influencers and sponsored content.

Customers took to Twitter to sing praises of the Popeyes chicken sandwich. Many set it up as a rival to the reigning chicken-sandwich king Chick-fil-A, which proudly claims the title of the inventor of the chicken sandwich.

Then, Chick-fil-A — normally a chain with a decidedly uncontroversial social media presence, in comparison to feistier brands like Wendy’s — decided to wade into the Twitter battle itself. Its weapon of choice: the subtweet.

“Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the ❤️ for the original,” Chick-fil-A tweeted on Monday, August 19, a week after the debut of Popeyes’ chicken sandwich.

Popeyes quote-tweeted it, adding: “… y’all good?”

Bruno Cardinali, a marketing executive for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, told The New York Times that the team spent 15 minutes putting together the tweet. And, according to Cardinali, it was this tweet that truly set off the chicken sandwich wars and Popeyes’ personal chicken sandwich chaos.

Deb Gabor, CEO of brand strategy consultancy Sol Marketing, told Business Insider that Popeyes benefitted from the comparisons to Chick-fil-A, a chicken chain with a polarizing reputation.

“Popeyes was able to attract so many customers largely through social media and word of mouth because not only did they launch a new product that customers legitimately loved, they got a ‘dialogue’ started about the chicken sandwiches themselves that rapidly snowballed into a larger conversation about values and beliefs when they took a direct shot at Chick-Fil-A,” Gabor said.

Read more: Popeyes and Chick-fil-A are feuding on Twitter in a battle over which chicken sandwich reigns supreme

Wendy’s, Church’s Chicken, Shake Shack, and more chains waded into the social media battle over who had the superior chicken sandwich. (After its subtweet, Chick-fil-A went quiet.)

Customers jumped into the debate, which quickly escalated into the #ChickenSandwichWars. And, these customers began showing up to Popeyes in droves.

The descent into fried-chicken chaos

Popeyes.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider

The first sign that people might be getting too excited about Popeyes’ chicken sandwich came on Tuesday.

Foot traffic tracker Placer.ai found that visits to Popeyes skyrocketed above the summer baseline average by 67.6% on Tuesday and 103.3% on Wednesday. Locations across the country began running out of sandwiches. Workers were forced to deal with angry mobs of customers looking for their chicken-sandwich fix.

On Wednesday, one Popeyes employee at a Newark, New Jersey location decided she had enough. She told Business Insider she decided to quit, walking out in the middle of making two chicken sandwiches.

“The issue with Popeyes or any fast food is the treatment and the amount of pay that a worker gets,” the now-former employee said, adding that “the added demand increased the amount of work tenfold, while I still get paid next to nothing.”

The week after Popeyes kicked off the chicken sandwich wars, five employees from across the US told Busines Insider that they were putting in long hours, with many working overtime. One employee said their restaurant had shifted to mostly focusing on completing orders, neglecting certain tasks like sweeping and washing dishes for the time being.

“I was working like a slave in the back prepping the buns with pickles and the spicy mayo,” said an 18-year-old Popeyes crew member in Orange County, California, estimating that he made at least 600 sandwiches on the Saturday after Popeyes’ tweet during an 11-hour shift.

Read more: Exhausted Popeyes employees describe a harrowing situation amid chicken-sandwich chaos, including working 60-hour weeks and shifts with no breaks

As workers struggled to keep up with demand in stores, Popeyes executives were realizing that shortages were a national problem. Locations across the US were supposed to have enough materials to last them until the end of September. Instead, restaurants were almost entirely sold out after less than two weeks.

The death of Popeyes’ sandwich — for now

Popeyes.
Irene Jiang / Business Insider

On Tuesday, August 27, just two weeks after Popeyes debuted the new menu item, the chain announced that it was officially off the menu.

“We love that you love The Sandwich,” the company tweeted. “Unfortunately we’re sold out (for now).”

“We, along with our suppliers, are working tirelessly to bring the new sandwich back to guests as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement to Business Insider.

One worker told Business Insider that the issue wasn’t chicken at her location — it was the lack of buns. Popeyes executives told The Times that locations ran out of the particular cut of breast meat used to make the sandwich, and that the chain will be recruiting new suppliers.

“We are working with suppliers of all components of our sandwich to build up our supply in order to bring back the chicken sandwich as soon as possible,” a Popeyes representative said in an email to Business Insider.

It seems unlikely that The Sandwich 2.0 will capture the same explosive energy of the Chicken Sandwich War. The past two weeks have been one of the most out-of-control reactions to a new menu item that this reporter has seen in six years of covering fast food. No country can continue to hype a chicken sandwich this aggressively for much longer.

Then again, it’s a really good sandwich.