FT editors go inside the chicken sandwich wars
From left: Famous Dave’s is a late-entry taste treat; Chick-fil-A’s spicy offering; Popeyes and its “mega mayo” superhit.
Famous Dave’s may have been late to the party, but it made quite the entrance with its version of a classic chicken sandwich. Officially dubbed Iris’ Comeback Chicken Sandwich, it was created by founder Dave Anderson and named for his mom—how sweet. Chicken sandwiches, especially ones that are deep-fried, are far from my first choice if I’m going out to eat, but the Iris impressed even me during a quick trip to my neighborhood Famous Dave’s in St. Paul, Minnesota, just a few days after the brand rolled it out to 125 restaurants. Served on a chewy brioche bun with pickles and “secret Comeback Sauce” (surprise, it’s just slightly spiced mayo), the chicken was delightfully crispy without overdoing it on the breading so the juicy meat could still shine. It’s actually the fourth chicken sandwich on the menu, but Famous Dave’s is looking to make some marketing noise alongside the likes of Popeyes, McDonald’s and Wendy’s, which are all clucking about their chicken sandwiches to compete with Chick-fil-A. Famous Dave’s, meanwhile, has struggled with declining sales. Perhaps this “Comeback” chicken sandwich is part of its comeback?
The upshot: For five bucks, Famous Dave’s iteration of a fried chicken sandwich certainly competes with its fast-food rivals on price—and wins on taste. —LM
Given the fervent entreaties by McDonald’s operators last summer, calling for a better chicken sandwich to compete with Chick-fil-A, I was expecting a sandwich revelation when visiting the never-open-Sundays franchise that nonetheless burns up the sales performance charts. As the board of the McDonald’s National Owner’s Association pleaded in July: “JFK called for a man on the moon. Our call should be a category-leading chicken sandwich.” But Chick-fil-A’s offering wasn’t stratospheric. In a small-ish bun, with a touch of butter and nestled in a foil red-and-white bag, the spicy chicken sandwich was merely tasty for $5.19. The chicken was satisfyingly plump, if not the freakishly robust super-breast shown in the photos (one of my most frequent complaints at restaurants), but I hoped that also meant it wasn’t pumped full of junk. The crunchy breading was nice and spicy, too. But an existential threat to everyone else? Not on this planet.
The upshot: I’m not over the moon for Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken sandwich, but the long lines at an attractive food court at MSP International Airport showed I might be a fast-food outlier. —BE
The Popeyes chicken sandwich was a viral phenomenon, but maybe the highest praise for the blockbuster new offering was the classic, “it tastes like grandma used to make.” My very Norwegian grandma never made me a fried chicken sandwich—she was more of an egg bake and krumkake kind of lady—but I had to see what the fuss was about. At first look, there was a nice shine on the brioche bun, the chicken appeared crunchy and a big pickle peeked out from underneath. There was, however, a good amount of mayonnaise around the periphery. With the first bite, it was clear there wasn’t just some side-saucing—there was a ton of mayonnaise on this thing. If this is how your grandma made it, I wonder if she went by Grandma Hellmann or called her car the Miracle Whip. Of course, it tasted good, and while the breading wasn’t that memorable it had a nice crunch. The chicken was a real standout, moist and flavorful throughout. The spicy version was even better, with some actual spice, unlike most “hot” sauces. The heat was cut by the same pickle as the original for an overall exceptionally well-balanced sandwich.
The upshot: It’s clear why the sandwich drew such praise and prompted lines around the block. Both versions were among the best at traditional mass-market QSR brands. But if the phrase “mega mayonnaise” at all gives you pause, get the original sans sauce. —NU
Ever wonder how consumers feel about your franchise? Editorial staffers Beth Ewen, Nick Upton, Laura Michaels, Callie Evergreen and Tom Kaiser check out three brands in a different genre each issue, and report back.