Chicken is on a roll.

So says YouGov BrandIndex, which tracks consumer attitudes toward quick service and other retail industries on a daily basis. Consumer interest in limited-service chicken chains is flying high as interest and sales at other categories, notably Mexican quick service and fast casual, have languished over the past 18 months, reports the YouGov survey.

Among those chains that it credits for chicken’s big bump is the No. 1 chicken chain in America: Chick-fil-A.

“While [the chicken sandwich] was our own little secret for years, the cat is definitely out of the bag now,” says David Farmer, vice president of menu strategy and development, who oversees menu improvement and the chain’s kitchen designs. “We are certainly seeing an uptick in the quick-service chicken trend, and we still think there is room for everybody.”

Perhaps there is. Other major chicken chains, including KFC, Church’s, Popeyes, and Boston Market, also are seeing a spike in interest, particularly in terms of all-important consumer “consideration,” according to the most recent YouGov BrandIndex survey, which interviews 4,300 people online every weekday.

During the past 18 months at quick-service restaurants, chicken is “breaking away” from burger, pizza, and Mexican food choices, says Ted Marzilli, CEO of YouGov BrandIndex. While some 19.5 percent of consumers said they are considering chicken for their next fast-food visit, only 17.5 percent said they were considering burgers. Two percentage points “can be pretty meaningful in a large and mature sector,” Marzilli says.

But as chicken appears to be in growth mode, the Mexican limited-service category seems to be stuck in neutral—and that’s even when the research firm excludes troubled Chipotle from its survey, he says.

“For Mexican chains, the challenge is to expand the footprint and drive more demand for Mexican,” Marzilli says. In the all-important Millennial demographic, for example, 19 percent say they are considering chicken on their next fast-food visit, while only 10 percent say they are considering Mexican food.

This is music to Chick-fil-A’s ears.

“People are looking for healthier proteins when they are on the go, and chicken fits that bill,” Farmer says. “Chicken is also very versatile, so it can be used as an ingredient in any type of cuisine.”

Not only has Chick-fil-A emerged as the nation’s largest chicken chain in sales, but the Southern chain continues to expand its presence on the East Coast. It will open about 90 new restaurants this year and 90 more next year, Farmer says. Among those, he says, 10–12 are in the Tri-State area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Chick-fil-A’s newest location opened in Queens, New York, on September 1. It also plans several locations in Massachusetts and Maine this fall and into early next year.

Chick-fil-A also will open its first location in Nevada in the first quarter of 2017, with three Las Vegas locations and one in Reno later in the year. And it plans continued expansion in the Northwest and in Michigan.

The continued expansion of Chick-fil-A’s “healthier” menu, Farmer says, is helping to drive interest in the brand. That includes the addition of its Egg White Grill (protein-packed breakfast sandwich), its Superfood side (small salad tossed with a blend of hand-chopped kale and Broccolini), its Spicy Southwest Salad, and its first-ever organic menu item: Appley Ever After apple juice.

Healthier options are key, Marzilli says, and not just because so many people order them. It’s also because customers like to have the “choice” to order them.

“People want the choice of healthier options,” he says. “Chicken is seen as better for you, and consumers are coming down on the side of balance.”

Which gives Chick-fil-A one more thing to crow about.

Freelance writer Bruce Horovitz is a former USA Today marketing reporter and Los Angeles Times marketing columnist. He can be reached at
Consumer Trends, Web Exclusives, Chick-fil-A