Popeyes is one brand that’s proved that even bone-in fried chicken, a product that often has the stigma of cheap fast food served in bundled family meal deals, can reach new heights when given the proper attention. Its Bonafide Chicken, marinated in Louisiana seasonings for at least 12 hours then hand-battered and hand-breaded, has taken on a premium image that’s paid off handsomely.
Though Popeyes’ boneless chicken business has grown between 10 and 20 percent in volume over the past three years, Lynch says, its bone-in business has increased nearly 10 percent, too. “We don’t feel the need to make a choice between bone-in, which is the core of the fried chicken business, and boneless,” he says. “We believe in what we call ‘the genius of the and,’ and our numbers prove it.”
Its focus on upscaling both sides of its chicken business—bone-in and otherwise—has helped Popeyes outperform the rest of the quick-service chicken category in sales growth for 21 straight quarters.
“If anybody is waiting for fried chicken on the bone to go away, they better get comfortable, because it’s going to be a really long wait,” Lombardi says. “It’s a very popular product; it’s going to stay a popular product.”
Though product is certainly king in the quest for premium, brands are discovering that creating an upmarket chicken concept isn’t all about the food. For many chains and customers, the atmosphere, physical appearance, and service weigh heavily, too.
McLeroy says Zaxby’s “curb appeal” lies in the experience and atmosphere that greet guests when they walk through the door. “It’s very much a casual-dining experience served fast,” he says. The brand’s big, comfortable booths and attentive team members offer “a different level of service” that doesn’t hurt either, Baxley adds.
At Chick-fil-A, going premium is all about making guests feel special both in the store and at the drive thru, whether it’s through good-quality food, being treated with respect and concern, or having the ability to relax in a comfortable environment, says Mark Moraitakis, director of hospitality and service design for Chick-fil-A.
“When we think about ‘premium,’ we think about those areas of the business: our food, our hospitality, our environment,” he says. “We want to make sure we have food that tastes really good … and we want to have people who care that serve that great-tasting, craveable food.”
Everything from the exterior of the units to the number of tables inside can influence the atmosphere and the overall customer experience, Moraitakis says. In an attempt to deliver a high-end experience at all touch points, Chick-fil-A provides relaxing interiors, WiFi, and double drive-thru lanes to speed up service when customers are in a hurry—all in addition to employees who go the extra mile to serve guests and guarantee the best experience possible.
The brand’s ascent to the top spot in the limited-service chicken segment further proves that customers tend to reward brands that go above and beyond to deliver on both product
“Ultimately, people like to spend money where they feel it’s appreciated,” Moraitakis says. “Our focus is on making sure when you choose Chick-fil-A, you feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth and that you were truly valued and appreciated.”
Beyond product and experience, chicken chains are even taking an upscale approach to marketing and branding. El Pollo Loco, for example, has adopted new imaging and advertising that communicate the aspects of the brand that differentiate it from others in the segment.
“We’ve remodeled about a quarter of our stores and we’ve created within the stores something called the ‘customer journey,’ where we really talk about the great lengths we go through to make this great chicken,” Valle says. “We educate them from when they hit the door all the way through to the counter, past the salsa bar, to when they’re actually sitting. We communicate that it’s great chicken—the way we cook it and with the great lengths we go to—that makes great entrées.”
Though the brand once marketed itself like a quick serve, with an emphasis on pricing and discounts, it now focuses on premium touch points, “from remodels on the outside to remodels on the inside to POP that doesn’t talk about price but talks about the differentiation of our product,” Valle says.
A large chunk of Popeyes’ rebranding initiative involved altering both its image and advertising, which it’s done through a new spokeswoman, Annie, who focuses on the premium elements of the brand’s food and heritage in advertisements.
“All she does is talk about the care and the quality of the food,” Lynch says. “While other [quick serves] are telling you other messages about their brands, … we talk about the food and our Louisiana distinctiveness with laser-beam focus.”
The brand also brought its elevated image to life through a restaurant remodel that’s nearly halfway complete. New and remodeled units feature elements such as a center-of-the-store spice rack with decorative, oversized jars of red peppers, rice, and other Louisiana spices that make Popeyes’ food distinctive; wall murals that tell the brand’s heritage; and mosaics that represent the seven cultures that melded to form Louisiana.
In addition, the brand redesigned its logo, scrapping the name Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits in favor of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and bringing in a new red and orange color scheme. In 2011, the logo redesign was cited by the Smithsonian as one of the 15 best brand refreshes in the past 15 years.
With all of the elements that combine to deliver an increasingly upmarket experience at chicken chains, Lynch says, some customers may assume premiumization comes at the expense of their wallets. But Popeyes sees “premium” as something that makes a concept more desirable and authentic, not more expensive by default, he says.
“It means something different, something better, something unique, something distinctive,” Lynch says. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean a higher price point. And that’s a little part of our magic, that we’ve been able to give our customers something … different, distinct, unique, elevating, but providing them at a price point that’s very competitive.”
Chicken brands offering higher-quality products do need to face the fact that serving an upscale product and experience can mean that the costs—both to the business and to customers—inch higher. Fortunately, so does the value.
“I’m not hyper-focused on whether our cost of goods are the lowest in the industry, because I think if we’re going to be truly offering a premium product, that should be represented on the P&L,” says Blake Bailey, CFO of Zaxby’s. “We’re not hyper-fixated on cost; we’re hyper-fixated on value and providing that to the guest.”
Perhaps it’s the value aspect that’s made customers feel most comfortable with the shift toward premium chicken concepts, a shift that’s only set to grow as more upscale chicken chains hit the market and regional players like Bojangles’ continue to expand nationwide.
Tristano says the emergence and growth of premium regional chains like Bojangles’ and PDQ—a Florida-based brand whose large units deliver hand-cut salads and hand-squeezed lemonade to the tune of AUVs upward of $2.5 million—not only expand the upscale image of limited-service chicken, but can also be a real threat to chains within the segment.
“Traditional [quick-service] and chicken restaurants are struggling,” El Pollo Loco’s Valle says. “The people that serve more distinctive food; that have more real ingredients; that do more authentic preparation; that have food that people look at as bold, flavorful, and with nutritional benefits are the ones that are going to succeed.”