Fried chicken is an American staple. KFC sells 60 million buckets of chicken in the U.S. alone each year. And when Popeyes launched a new fried-chicken sandwich in August—with a buttermilk-battered and hand-breaded white-meat chicken fillet served on a brioche bun with two barrel-cured pickles and mayo or spicy Cajun spread—the pop-culture response was so intense that the sandwich sold out in two weeks across the system.
Despite the quick-service industry trending toward healthier, functional foods, leaders think there is still room to grow on the fried-chicken front.
“While people are eating healthier, they are also being deliberate about their indulgences,” says Kevin Warden, founder and president of Flyrite, a three-unit chicken-sandwich concept in Austin, Texas.
Even with big players like KFC and Chick-fil-A dominating the market, fast casuals focusing in on just chicken—like Guy Fieri’s new concept Chicken Guy and the Bay Area’s Starbird, launched by restaurant consultants The Culinary Edge—have started to gather followings.
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Large brands and aspirational fast casuals alike are experimenting with new fried-chicken platforms, sauces, flavor profiles, and breading techniques to offer customers a higher-quality experience. Some have even dropped the actual chicken from the plate and are offering vegan fried-chicken options.
To make chicken and waffles easier to eat in a fast-casual setting, Chick’nCone founders Josh Lanier and Jonathan Almanzar decided to reinvent the dish, offering chicken drenched with one of the brand’s signature sauces in a waffle-cone format, much like an ice-cream cone.
KFC, meanwhile, has been leveraging the bowl format. Far from the protein- and nutrient-packed bowls that made the trend popular, KFC has gone the indulgent route, offering items like its newest Mac & Cheese Bowl, which combines the concept’s creamy mac and cheese with its popcorn chicken, topped with a three-cheese blend and an optional Nashville hot sauce. “The KFC food innovation team is constantly looking at food trends to bring craveable offerings to our customers, and we know bowl food is a trend that isn’t going away,” says Vijay Sukumar, chief food innovation officer at KFC U.S.
KFC introduced a hot chicken offering in 2016 after a food safari trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Other brands have jumped on the Nashville hot train, like six-unit Starbird, which launched the Nashville Hotbird Sandwich alongside a Nashville Hotbird Taco and Tender Box in the fall of 2018. “We follow a traditional Nashville hot chicken process by dunking our chicken in a house-made oil blend and finish with a proprietary hot seasoning,” says Aaron Noveshen, founder and CEO. “The overall flavor experience is different than traditional hot chicken, as it doesn’t kill your tastebuds with an overwhelming burning sensation—however, it does give you just enough heat to keep coming back.” The LTO was the most successful in company history and continues to be a top seller, Noveshen says.
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Starbird has also been experimenting with Asian flavors to liven up its fried-chicken offerings. In winter 2019, the brand launched a Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich with a house-made gochujang glaze, cabbage-based honey miso slaw, cucumber, scallions, and toasted sesame seeds. “Alongside a taco and tender box, this sandwich created a lot of buzz for our restaurants, leading the charts out of the gate,” Noveshen says. Now the brand is working on a Japanese-inspired Tokyo Katsu crispy chicken sandwich, as the team has seen a rise in katsu, or panko, chicken across the California restaurant scene.
Meanwhile, Panda Express, the quick-serve leader in Asian flavors, has taken advantage of both the Nashville hot and Asian flavor trends to offer customers Sichuan Hot Chicken tenders.
Beyond delighting customers with new sauces and flavor profiles, brands are looking to be more inclusive of gluten-free and vegan diets, even on the most indulgent of menu items. Starbird, for example, hand-breads its chicken in rice flour and cooks it in a rice bran oil for a finished product that is light, crispy, and gluten-free.
Hot Chicken Takeover, with four locations in Ohio, recently added Not Chicken to its menu. The vegan protein rounds out the brand’s tight and nostalgic menu to give everyone the option to enjoy a hot chicken experience. And Flyrite recently launched The Greenbelt, a vegan sandwich that features a crispy vegan multigrain patty on a vegan bun with housemade pickles, vegan mayo, vegan cheese, crispy onion strings, lettuce, tomato, and Flyrite’s house-made spicy vegan barbecue sauce. “While we are a fried-chicken sandwich [quick serve], we believe that guests have a wider variety of tastes and dietary restrictions than ever before, and at Flyrite we believe everyone is welcome at our table,” Warden says.
KFC made a splash earlier this fall with a one-store test of a plant-based Beyond Fried Chicken product that sold out in 5 hours. “Fried chicken has long been a comfort food and hearty meal for many Americans and continues to be, so, to stand out, brands will have to continue to evolve and innovate,” Sukumar says.
Aside from the chicken itself, some brands are leveraging beverage pairings as a way to promote their fried-chicken products. Flyrite is building out both its alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage offerings to accommodate its menu. There is a traditional lemonade made in-house, as well as an activated-charcoal lemonade that Warden says is hard to keep in stock. The brand has also been building out its selection of local craft beer, which is available through drive-thru service as well as in store. “We think fried chicken and cold beer go great together,” Warden says.