The numbers are up, way up. To be sure, there are regional variations: they are highest in the south and southwest, but still trending steadily upward in the northeast and west. And while the increase is across the board, the demographics with the greatest increase appear to skew toward those that are older, female, have higher incomes, have children in the household, and live in the suburbs. While empirical data as to the best option is hard to come by, experts do say that one choice is a standout. And that name is not Moderna, Pfizer or J&J, but Popeyes. For once we’re not talking about vaccine statistics, we’re talking chicken sandwiches.

If you had to name the definitive fast food sandwich, most would default to the iconic McDonald’s burger. And throughout most of QSR history (that’s Quick Service Restaurant, what the industry prefers to call itself) you would have been right. Ever since Ray Kroc founded Mickey D’s in 1955, it has come to define and dominate our takeout lives. It was a few years later in 1964 that Chick-Fil-A introduced a mass market poultry competitor: a portion of white chicken meat, breaded, fried and served in a steamed roll with some pickles. While it was popular enough to spread to other chains, it was most decidedly an also-ran for years and years, something to have on the menu for those picky eaters that had un-American beef-based palates.

But a variety of factors, from shifting tastes to healthier eating habits to solid marketing, have helped to take chicken from a mere challenger to a contender. Availability also helped: according to the USDA, in 2018, 65.2 pounds of chicken per person were available for Americans to eat (on a boneless, edible basis) as compared to 54.6 pounds of beef. In fact, since 1970, U.S. chicken availability per person has more than doubled. That has translated into demand, as roughly 65% of the U.S. population has ordered a breaded chicken sandwich from a quick service restaurant since April of this year.

While it had its devotees, there was no breakout moment. None, that is, until August 2019, when Popeyes burst onto the landscape. While they had tried once before with a Chicken Po-Boy in 2003, it didn’t gain traction and was discontinued. This was different. It quickly sold out, then reappeared in November. It’s hard to believe the press would swoon over a fast food item, but swoon they did. Said one review, “There is almost certainly better fried chicken in the world than the version found at Popeyes, but only marginally so.” Another said, “It’s a tiny miracle.” And still another rated it “10 out of 10: I would cancel plans for it.”

Of course, success like that means the battle is joined. Every major and minor player threw their breast into the ring: KFC, Whataburger, Wendy’s, Church’s, Zaxby’s, Fatburger and yes, McDonald’s, all rolled out new offerings or refreshed old ones. It got so you couldn’t stretch a wing without hitting a brioche bun and a tangy sauce. All those choices helped fuel demand, to the point that annual growth in consumption is over 24%. If the sandwich were a stock and you bought in, you would be one wealthy cluck.

But wait, there’s trouble on the horizon, as the next chapter of the story may about to be written. One of the biggest trends in food is the growth of plant-based products, with plant-based meat sales up 45%. That helps to explain why the two largest artificial protein purveyors, Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, have both rolled out chicken replacement products. Doing what they did for beef in replicating taste and texture, you can now get Beyond Chicken Tenders and Impossible Nuggets. Reviews are positive: “tastes like chicken” is high praise indeed.

In the late 1960s you might have had the good fortune to happen across a radio series about a mild-mannered shoe salesman named Benton Harbor. On the weekend he fought crime as “the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known,” striking terror into the hearts of evildoers as Chickenman. The Fantastic Fowl’s battle cry? “He’s everywhere, he’s everywhere!” Was he talking chicken sandwich or super hero? It remains to be seen.

Marc Wollin of Bedford loves a good piece of fried chicken. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at glancingaskance.blogspot.com, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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