Through the Ages: Chicken Sandwich Warfare

By Darius Thornton 

If one wanted to ruffle a few feathers in the latter half of last year, they need only have mentioned two words: chicken sandwich. The delectable delicacy stirred up a fair bit of conflict, igniting a perpetual food war between two of the fast-food industry’s giants, Chick-fil-A and Popeyes. Which one you preferred became a question of allegiance and morality. It was everywhere, television, Youtube videos, online articles, hilarious memes. It was just a bit of harmless fun, at least at first, with both restaurants taking playful shots at each other on social media and of course inspiring copycats to do the same for laughs. Then, as things often do, everything spiraled out of control. Employees were assaulted and held at gunpoint, supposed anti-LGBTQ+ agendas were revealed, clickbait articles and videos reigned in the clicks and cleary everyone lost their damn minds. Needless to say, things escalated quickly. I repeat, this started over chicken sandwiches by the way, at least in part. How could a simple sandwich become relevant enough to cause all of this?

Let’s begin at the beginning. It is commonly accepted, save for a few controversial disputes, that the chicken sandwich was created in 1946 by Atlanta restaurant owner, Truett Cathy. He called it “the Chick-fil-A”. Sound familiar? Yep, he went on to found the fast-food chain that would one day become a household name. And he did this by simply sticking a boneless piece of grilled chicken in a bun. Even now, their slogan is “We didn’t invent the chicken, just the chicken sandwich.” It took their competitors a bit to catch on. McDonald’s tried and failed to launch the McChicken in 1980 and 1981, before finally breaking through after fan demand brought it back. The 80s saw a rise to prominence for chicken as meat in the fast-food industry, which had been previously dominated by beef for decades. Chicken was healthier and cheaper and was also more versatile. It could be fried, grilled, boiled, broiled or baked and with that came new possibilities for menu items. Kentucky Fried Chicken got in on the act during the 1960s and numerous chains such as Wendy’s, Burger King, Arby’s and more adopted their own versions of the chicken sandwich to try and replicate Chick-Fil-A’s success. Chick-Fil-A also led the charge when it came to marketing chicken in the industry with their hilarious and iconic “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign featuring cows as a clear shot at beef. Consumers flocked towards this. According to Euromonitor International, a market research firm, chicken sales went up by 42.1 percent at fast-food restaurants between 2011 and 2016.

Okay, so people started eating chicken, what does this have to do with last year’s war? Well, to understand that, we first need to understand the connotation of each company, Popeyes, or as it was known then, Chicken on the Run was founded in Arabi, Louisiana in 1972. It has since been renamed Popeyes Chicken N’ Biscuits to its current name Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. While both Popeyes and Chick-Fil-A originate from the South, they’ve been known to target different demographics. Popeyes leans heavily into its Southern and Cajun roots and using it as a marketing tool to target more “urban” areas or poorer communities. Chick-Fil-A, on the other hand, has strayed from this a bit, and though the chain does have a presence everywhere to some degree, they are more numerous in suburban areas. This has led to the belief that there is some sort of implied class difference between the two restaurants which is odd, considering there isn’t too much of a difference in the price when one actually looks at the menus. Popeyes has long been notorious for seemingly having horrible customer service at every location. Everyone one. In contrast, Chick-Fil-A is famous for their almost over the top and borderline-creepy, kind service. This illusion of a class difference, Yin and Yang, has all the ingredients of great beef, which is ironic since we’re talking about chicken. All that’s needed now is an inciting incident. And boy did we get one.

It all started when Popeyes dropped its spicy chicken sandwich in August. Now, Chick-Fil-A had been considered by many to be the king of chicken sandwiches for decades, and for the first time there was a real contender to snatch that crown. Consumers, and chicken sandwich enthusiasts (Yes they’re a real thing, that’s the port we’re at now) took to social media to proclaim this and, naturally, as with the majority of opinions on the internet, arguments followed. Even both restaurants got involved, with Popeyes having a sign that read “Open Sundays”, a clear shot at Chick-Fil-A’s practice of being closed on Sundays. It also didn’t help that this happened to coincide with Chick-Fil-A’s history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ organizations as they vowed to finally stop doing so in 2020.  Popeyes had a hit on their hands, losing their entire two-month inventory in just two weeks due to the insane demand. Things got crazy when videos of workers being harassed and attacked by angry customers emerged after locations around the nation ran out. There was even an account of a group of customers holding a worker at gunpoint, demanding sandwiches. This insane popularity led to the sandwich having to be pulled from the menu for a few weeks, until Popeyes could restock. Another byproduct of this entire ordeal was, of course, the hilarious memes. Memes that revealed the over the top things people would do for a chicken sandwich, memes that depicted Chick-Fil-A and Popeyes as rival New York mobsters, as the 90s hip hop labels Bad Boy and Death Row, Captain America: Civil War memes, conspiracy theories over what Popeyes put in the sandwich, anything one could imagine. Things died down slowly as 2019 waned, even after the sandwich returned with much fanfare. By December, the war was pretty much over, save for some stragglers who wanted to throw shade.

Who won when the dust settled? Depends on who you ask. Some will tell you McDonald’s was even involved. Both sides raked in their money, that’s for sure. The craziness had #ChickenSandwichWars trending on social media for a while and even managed to be the most talked-about thing in meme culture, matched only by Baby Yoda and Area 51. The war’s roots date back to the invention of the sandwich itself and our own tendency to attribute certain restaurants with certain economic classes. The Shakespearean irony of Chick-Fil- being bested at something they had created. Of how mankind will one day be the architects of their own destruction. Okay, that last one was a reach, but the memes were great. Remember, the fate of the world may just hang on where you decide to buy a piece of meat and two pieces of bread. Choose wisely. Or the internet may just lose its mind again.

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