That’s wasn’t based on just a hunch. The NPD Group reported that, for the year ending February 2019, 4 billion chicken sandwiches were ordered at U.S. restaurants, up 4 percent from the previous year. That’s compared to 8.6 billion burgers, a number that was flat over the prior year. And as analyst Lauren Silberman of investment bank Credit Suisse points out, what’s noteworthy isn’t just how many more chicken sandwiches are getting sold, but who they’re getting sold to. “It appeals more to females, and that’s a key demographic to get into,” she says. “And when you think of millennials and younger people, they’ve been shifting toward boneless categories as opposed to bone-in.”
Of course, the chicken-sandwich game isn’t exactly a new frontier. A certain Atlanta-based behemoth has built its empire with a chicken sandwich as its star item. Indeed, Chick-fil-A’s dominance in the chicken-sandwich space wasn’t lost on Popeyes, which rose to prominence with a bone-in product. That’s why the New Orleans–founded and flavored chain wasn’t afraid to take some shots at Chick-fil-A when it launched its new sandwich.
Or rather, one really powerful, efficient shot. Really, just two words. On August 19, 2019, one week after Popeyes’ Chicken Sandwich launch, Chick-fil-A tweeted a not-so-thinly-veiled nudge at its rival, saying “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the [heart emoji] for the original.” In response, Popeyes tweeted simply, “…y’all good?”
It was the tweet read ’round the world. Twitter exploded with likes, retweets, commentary, and memes. Celebrities chimed in. Late-night talk-show hosts joked about it. And just like that, the so-called “Chicken Sandwich Wars” had begun.
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For Popeyes, the results were immediate. People waited hours in line to try the new sandwich. Individual restaurants reportedly sold about 1,000 Chicken Sandwiches a day. And eight days after The Tweet, on August 27, the brand announced to the world that the initial run of the Chicken Sandwich had sold out, even though the company had planned enough product to last through September.
A June report in Ad Age cited Popeyes estimations that the tweet earned more than 20 billion impressions worth about $220 million. By the end of 2019, Popeyes had more than doubled its Twitter followers. Athayde says the brand had planned an ad campaign for around Labor Day of 2019 that would showcase customers enjoying the sandwich, but the campaign was shelved for months because it wasn’t needed.
“It’s incredible the amount of word of mouth and of positive reviews that we have seen,” he says. “It’s incredible how enthusiastic our guests were with the product.”
Enthusiastic might be selling it short. Popeyes enjoyed a 10.2 percent same-store sales bump in 2019’s third quarter, even though the $3.99 Chicken Sandwich graced the menu for just two weeks of the quarter. It returned to menus on November 3—a Sunday, in another shot at Chick-fil-A—and Q4 sales rose a staggering 37.9 percent. In reporting RBI’s 2019 performance in February, CEO Jose Cil said he and others who’d been in the restaurant industry a long time had “never seen the kind of guest response for a single product launch like the one we had for our Popeyes Chicken Sandwich.”
Turns out, Cil was more right than he could have known.