Cost of Living

Why the appetite for chicken sandwiches is red hot and shows no signs of slowing down

Sales of chicken sandwiches are booming across Canada, even during a pandemic, and restaurants big and small seem to be hopping on the bandwagon. So what's behind the food's popularity as it moves its way up the pecking order?

Sales are booming across Canada, even through a global pandemic and lockdown

Francine Gomes holds a "Mother Clucker" chicken sandwich in her Calgary restaurant, the Cluck N Cleaver. Different chicken sandwich versions — whether breaded, saucy or spicy — have proliferated across the vast restaurant landscape in North America. (Tony Seskus/CBC)

The humble chicken sandwich has traditionally played second fiddle on the fast-food menu.

It's better than a fish sandwich but not quite the Whopper or a Big Mac. But while the chicken sandwich may not yet be in the same class as a beef burger, poultry need not be humble anymore.

Different versions of the sandwich — whether breaded, saucy or spicy — have proliferated across the vast restaurant landscape in North America. Even seafood chain Red Lobster now sells a Nashville hot chicken sandwich.

The sandwiches have even proven to be pandemic resistant. While overall restaurant visits were down significantly over the last year and a half, chicken sandwich purchases were up 14 per cent, according to NPD Group.

"Chicken sandwiches are just booming," said Vince Sgabellone, food service industry analyst for NPD Group, which tracks industry data and trends.

"They're back to where they were two years ago, despite the lack of traffic of people going into restaurants."

A fowl war, indeed

It's no wonder, then, that at least 20 restaurant chains across North America have added some kind of new chicken sandwich to their menu over a two-year period.

It's been dubbed the chicken sandwich wars by some, with the first salvos launched in the United States in 2019, when Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen began offering its fried chicken sandwich.

A customer in Texas holds up a Popeyes chicken sandwich at the height of their hype, in August 2019. (Eric Gay/The Associated Press)

That move was considered a direct challenge to competitor Chick-fil-A, which began selling its chicken sandwich in 1967.

Observers had predicted that the market had already reached peak chicken in 2016, but its popularity has since skyrocketed.

While those observers may be surprised by where things have gone since then, two sisters with a chicken restaurant in Calgary saw potential back in 2017.

Francine and Nicole Gomes, who own the Cluck N Cleaver restaurant, went on a chicken-eating tour of the U.S. South in 2017 for a kind of tasty fact-finding mission.

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"We ate so much fried chicken on that trip," Francine said in an interview with CBC Radio's The Cost of Living, as she described multiple stops at famous chicken joints, as well as roadside chicken shacks.

One thing the restaurateurs concluded is they wanted to add a chicken sandwich to their menu, which they did just a few weeks after their return. They now offer two chicken sandwiches.

The Gomes sisters told The Cost of Living that their chicken sandwich sales have increased year over year by 40 per cent, even as other competing restaurants opened.

"It's going bonkers," said Nicole Gomes, also well-known as a champion from the Top Chef Canada Allstars television show.

Francine Gomes, left, and her sister, Nicole, own the Cluck N Cleaver restaurant in Calgary. They say there's room for everyone in the growing chicken sandwich craze. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

"There's room for everybody," she said, adding that she welcomes the growth.

Her comments underscore that the chicken sandwich phenomenon isn't driven exclusively by fast-food chains, with many independent restaurants joining the trend.

"Even before the pandemic, there was an increase in restaurants opening that focused on one single item, like ramen or pizza or burgers or fried chicken sandwiches," said Calgary-based food journalist Julie Van Rosendaal, who appears on CBC Radio.

"And so even beyond fast food, there have been a lot of small restaurants opening up that focus just on fried chicken or even just fried chicken sandwiches. And that has helped drive the trend as well."

A hot plate of punishment pays off

The chicken sandwich isn't a new item, with newspaper ads for the meal found as far back as the 1930s. But the spicy chicken sandwich gaining popularity has a more contemporary origin.

Lately, variations of "Nashville hot chicken" have drawn attention, with one of the dish's birthplaces, Prince's Hot Chicken, serving as a mecca for chicken fans such as Calgary's Gomes sisters. They included the restaurant on their trip four years ago.

The story behind its signature dish is the stuff of legend — and is actually rooted in revenge.

According to family lore, James Thornton Prince III was a handsome man who never struggled to find a date on a Saturday night, but he wasn't too popular with one particular woman left behind while he enjoyed an evening out on the town.

After returning home, Prince was ready for a meal. His girlfriend provided one in the form of an extra-spicy serving of chicken, which she thought would teach him a lesson.

"She had to get some attention," said André Prince Jeffries, Thornton's grand-niece and now the matriarch of Prince's Hot Chicken. "She had to let him know ... she was hurt."

André Prince Jeffries, centre, the owner of Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, is flanked by Calgary's Gomes sisters, who included the restaurant on a trip four years ago. (Submitted by Francine Gomes)

The meal did not have the desired effect and ultimately led to his famous hot chicken.

"After he devoured it ... I'm sure he asked for more," Jeffries said in an interview with The Cost of Living. He apparently enjoyed the chicken so much, he eventually tried to recreate it and then sell it.

"I think he would be rather surprised if he knew his punishment is still being recognized [today]."

More money in the chicken coop

Few other chicken sandwiches on the market these days can promise the same benefits as Prince's legendary offerings, but regardless of why people flock to the bird, they are doing so more often than before.

Spending by Americans on chicken sandwiches has quadrupled in just a two-year span, and a growing appetite for the sandwiches in Canada is something chicken farmers are trying to better understand as well.

The former location of Prince's Hot Chicken in Nashville, serving as a mecca for chicken fans. The popular restaurant has since moved to a new spot, but the chicken is just as spicy. (Submitted by Francine Gomes)

"Every week it seems like you have a bit more of an update on what the next sandwich is going to be," said Jason Born, chair of the Alberta Chicken Producers.

"It's something that we're very happy to see, of course."

Born said it's difficult to specifically quantify the value of the chicken sandwich boom to the Canadian sector, but it is an expanding slice of the restaurant business.

"If a significant portion of your business — in our case 40 per cent — is through these restaurant channels, it'll have an impact on volume and production," he said.

Consumers have seen grocery store prices for chicken jump in recent months, in part due to increased demand. However, the rising cost of chicken feed and supply-chain issues are also causing prices to go up. (Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

Chicken processors now worth billions of dollars

Industry officials say demand for chicken and chicken production are both rebounding from the impact of the pandemic, which saw many restaurants close under public health restrictions.

Consumers have seen grocery store prices for chicken jump in recent months, in part due to increased demand. However, the rising cost of chicken feed and supply-chain issues are also causing prices to go up.

The average retail price for a kilo of chicken was more than $8 in Canada in July, up 15 per cent in only six months, according to Statistics Canada.

It's not just chicken that's selling for a premium these days — it's also chicken processing companies.

Amid strengthening chicken sales and prices in the U.S., poultry processor Sanderson Farms is selling for $4.5 billion US to a joint venture that includes Cargill and Continental Grain.

The price represented a whopping 30 per cent premium on Sanderson's stock price in mid-June, a clear indication both companies see a big future in chicken.

Social media, takeout popularity behind chicken's flight

But sales figures and stock markets aside, why are chicken sandwiches climbing up the pecking order of foodies' favourites?

Food columnist Van Rosendaal said she believes a few key things have helped chicken sandwiches take flight even after others thought they'd hit their peak years ago.

We decided it was the peak in 2016, and we were wrong.- Julie Van Rosendaal, food columnist for CBC Radio

For one, she said takeout food has performed relatively well during the pandemic, and chicken sandwiches travel well while also being "indulgent."

While marketing is a big part of the chicken sandwich wars, Van Rosendaal pointed out that the food's popularity on Instagram has also helped raise the sandwich's profile.

"When it's really visually appealing, it does very well on social media," she said. "So chicken sandwiches have been driven by social media."

As for how long the trend can last, Van Rosendaal said she finds it "fascinating" that not only does the chicken sandwich trend have staying power, but it doesn't even seem to be slowing down.

"We decided it was the peak in 2016, and we were wrong."


Written and produced by Tony Seskus.
Click the play icon above this story to hear this segment, or 
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The Cost of Living airs every week on CBC Radio One, Sundays at 12:00 p.m. ET (12:30 NT).

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