Chicken Restaurant Chains: What’s New and Where They’re Headed

Apr 17, 2024

Chicken Restaurant Chains: What’s New and Where They’re Headed

For chicken restaurant chains, 2019 was the year that launched a flurry of menu innovation that continues to this day. Most famously, Popeyes®, formerly a fried chicken and tenders operator, introduced a chicken sandwich that captured headlines and 203 million orders in its first year.1

This didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, restaurant chains of all kinds were fielding challengers in the chicken sandwich wars. And now, in 2024, innovation with chicken items has shifted into overdrive, with new formats and flavors coming to market regularly. If you haven’t been able to keep up, here’s what you missed over the last year or so:

A round-up of what’s been happening at chicken restaurant chains

Chick-fil-A®: The leading chicken restaurant chain has continued to introduce new items. Last August, Chick-fil-A announced a new Honey Pepper Pimento chicken sandwich, swapping out the usual pickle chips for pickled jalapeño slices and a dollop of pimento cheese, a southern specialty. And now for something you didn’t expect: the company’s innovation kitchen, “Little Blue Menu,” has developed six new pizza items inspired by regular Chick-fil-A menu items. One pizza offers “Mozzarella cheese topped with juicy, seasoned-to-perfection chopped Chick-fil-A® Nuggets, drizzled with Chick-fil-A® Sauce and served with pickles.”2

McDonald’s®: After some trial and error, McDonald’s landed a hit with its McCrispy Chicken Sandwiches. In the fall of 2023, sales of the McCrispy line surpassed $1 billion annually worldwide.3 But they didn’t stop there. Spicy Chicken McNuggets, an LTO from 2020, is back by popular demand in April 2024 in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, New York, and other cities.

Taco Bell®: This spring, Taco Bell began offering its new Cantina Chicken Menu. It provides a selection of five dishes: the Cantina Chicken Soft Taco, Cantina Chicken Crispy Taco, Cantina Chicken Burrito, Cantina Chicken Quesadilla, and Cantina Chicken Bowl. Each dish is made with oven-roasted, shredded chicken, seasoned with a blend of spices, including pasilla and other chili varieties.4

KFC®: Not to be outdone in its own cultural backyard, KFC just brought a mashup from its Philippines menu to the United States. Chizza is essentially pizza but with fried chicken taking the place of a traditional crust. Topped with marina sauce, pepperoni and cheese, the Chizza previously won over diners in Korea, Taiwan, India, Germany, Spain, Mexico and other countries. It launched across the U.S. in February.5 Last summer, Kentucky Fried Chicken rolled out its Ultimate BBQ Fried Chicken Sandwich, a mouthwatering combination of a white chicken filet, hickory smoked bacon, honey-barbecue sauce, fried onions, melted cheese and pickles.

Popeyes®: Last fall, Popeyes unveiled a collaboration with condiment maker Truff: The Spicy Truff Chicken Sandwich, a twist on its original sandwich featuring Truff’s Spicy mayo. The mayo includes red jalapeño and black winter truffle.6 More recently, the chain added a honey-pepper-lemon flavor to its lineup of chicken wings, making six flavors in all, as well as the Blackened Chicken Sandwich.7

Shake Shack®: This chain has been busy with chicken sandwiches starring in popular themed LTOs. Last September saw the debut of their Spicy Chicken Sandwich with a blend of hot peppers, pickles and cherry-pepper slaw. Then, in January 2024, Shake Shack launched a Korean-fried-chicken-inspired menu featuring their Korean-Style Chicken Sandwich with “gochujang glaze, sprinkled with sesame seeds and topped with white kimchi slaw, featuring Choi’s Kimchi, on a toasted potato bun.”8

But where are the chicken and waffles?

With the chicken category on fire, you might wonder why less than 1% of chicken restaurant chains offer chicken and waffles.9 After all, menu mentions of chicken and waffles are up 46% in the last four years. The reason, it seems, is the dish’s lack of portability—you have to sit at a table to eat it.9

But in March, that changed with Simplot’s introduction of Maple City™ Waffle Flavored Waffle Fries, the first waffle fries that actually taste like waffles. Now, chicken chain restaurants and others can serve chicken and waffles just by adding these fries to the fried chicken, chicken tenders, and chicken fingers they’re already serving and start capitalizing on the chicken and waffle phenomenon.

In addition to waffle-flavored waffle fries, the Maple City™ lineup includes Waffle-Flavored Breakfast Bites. These triangular, crinkle-cut potato bites are made with real maple syrup (just like the waffle fries) for a delicious flavor that pairs perfectly with all your morning favorites.

Learn more about Simplot® Maple City™ Waffle-Flavored Potatoes.

The clucking continues: What’s next for chicken restaurant chains?

The “chicken sandwich wars” may have cooled slightly, but the humble chicken sandwich remains a star player on fast food menus. Here’s a glimpse into what the future holds for this trend:

International influence: Chicken chains won’t be satisfied with just crispy classics. Expect to see more adventurous flavor profiles. International spices, ethnic sauces, and global-inspired toppings are likely to take flight. Imagine a jerk chicken sandwich or an African-spice-flavored option.

Premiumization of poultry: As chicken remains a cost-effective protein, chains may use it as a base for more premium offerings. Look for sandwiches featuring higher-quality cuts like brined or sous vide chicken breasts, gourmet cheeses, and artisanal bread.

Healthier options: While indulgence will always have a place, there’s a growing desire for healthier fast-food options. Chicken restaurant chains may introduce grilled or air-fried chicken sandwiches, sandwiches on multigrain buns, and lighter sauces to cater to this health-conscious trend.

Tech meets clucks: Technology is seeping into every aspect of the fast-food experience. Expect to see chicken chains leverage apps for customization, allowing customers to tailor their sandwiches with unique toppings and sauces.

Speaking of toppings, here are some great options to consider:

Simplot® Simple Goodness™ Premium Vegetables RTE Caramelized-Style Onions: Who doesn’t love caramelized onions on items like chicken sandwiches? Now you can add that rich flavor across your menu in as little as three minutes —92% faster prep than scratch. Just warm and serve.

Simplot® Harvest Fresh® Flavored Avocado Spreads: Our new spreads are mouthwatering mashups of Hass avocado and chef-inspired ingredients. Two flavors will hit distributors in May: Dill Pickle Avocado (great on burgers, chicken sandwiches and more) and Cucumber Tzatziki Avocado (ideal for wraps, gyros and Mediterranean fare). Looking for simple adds to make your everyday items into crave-able LTOs? This is it.

The rise of new rivals: The market is far from saturated. New chicken chains are popping up all over, offering unique takes on the sandwich. This spurs competition and innovation, benefiting everyone who enjoys a good chicken sandwich.

Beyond the bun: Chicken sandwiches may not be the only stars. Wraps, bowls, and salads featuring creative chicken variations will likely emerge, offering more variety for health-conscious or carb-conscious consumers.

One thing’s for sure: the future of chicken at fast food chains is bright. With continued innovation, health-conscious options, and exciting new players, there’s a perfect chicken item out there for everyone.