Ken Hoffman on the fast food fowl play stealing the burger’s national spotlight


Remember when McDonald’s sold hamburgers and cheeseburgers and Quarter-Pounders and Big Macs?

If you’ve been watching television and McDonald’s stock price, it looks like McDonald’s – and every other fast food chain – has become a nationwide chicken shack. Burgers seemingly have become passe — yesterday’s lunch in the drive-thru.

Since August, 2019, when Popeyes introduced its first and crazy successful Chicken Sandwich (you might have heard about it), more than 40 national and local fast food chains have introduced new and improved, and more expensive, chicken sandwiches.

Popeyes created a national panic, practically on the level of radio’s War of the Worlds in 1938, when it ran out of its Chicken Sandwich after only a month. Popeyes now calls its chicken sandwich simply “The Sandwich,” as though all other sandwiches are imposters and pretenders.

How arrogant. We all know “The Sandwich” really is a sloppy, sauce-dripping, cheese-oozing chicken parm sandwich on a crunchy Italian sub roll. My current obsession is found at Tony’s Italian Delicatessen on Hwy 105 in Montgomery. You might want to wear a painter’s smock.

The bird’s the word

When Popeyes found its cupboard bare of chicken sandwiches, other fast food restaurants ordered their R&D departments on warp speed to fill the void.

KFC upgraded its chicken sandwich last January, Wendy’s last October, Zaxby’s in October, Jack in the Box in December, Shake Shack in January, on and on across the country. Even Taco Bell concocted a hybrid Crispy Chicken Sandwich Taco.

Then came the big dog, the head of the table, McDonald’s finally joining the battle in February with three new Crispy Chicken Sandwiches (original, spicy, and deluxe). It wasn’t exactly a soft opening. McDonald’s unleashed one of the most expansive and expensive promotional campaigns in fast food history. The only things missing from McDonald’s onslaught of commercials are a gecko and insurance lady (who wears an apron for some weird reason).

When Popeyes unveils a hot new product, it’s big business. When McDonald’s does it, it’s the gross national product of a small country. McDonald’s first-quarter sales are up 13.6 percent from a year ago. McDonald’s says the spicy version of its new chicken sandwich is bringing in younger and “more diverse” customers.

Now, McDonald’s is testing a Breakfast Chicken Sandwich in northern California. It’s a small hunk of chicken topped with honey butter. Sound familiar, Whataburger fans?

Of course, nothing can be all good news these days. Fast food chicken sandwiches are so wildly popular, industry forecasters say there may be a chicken breast shortage in coming months. Other factors are contributing to a possible poultry outage: the pandemic, the Texas freeze-out last February, and poultry processing plants having difficulty finding employees willing to work for chicken feed.

Also, Americans cooped up because of the pandemic are frequenting fast food restaurants and causing drive-through traffic jams in record numbers. KFC has doubled its sandwich sales. Chick-fil-A sales are up 13 percent across the board. Chain restaurants now report 90 percent of their business is through the drive-through window, up from about 60 percent in recent years.

Oh, the poor, poor pitiful hamburger, seemingly forgotten in America’s teenage crush on chicken sandwiches. But will this love affair last, or will Americans return to their dark master, the burger? I’m thinking that burgers will ultimately win out.

Why chicken, anyway?

In fact, I don’t understand how chicken sandwiches have gotten this far. Dull, tasteless chicken breasts are the biggest scam perpetrated on the American public since carpet sweepers and One-Hour Martinizing (two Seinfeld references for you).

In the elementary school carpool lane you’ll hear that chicken sandwiches are more healthful — or less damaging at least — than burgers. True and not true.

Chicken sandwiches have about 25 percent less cholesterol than burgers, but they’re still breaded and deep-fried slabs of animal protein. Of course, greasy breading is tasty. I have a friend who loves Long John Silver’s because they toss a scoop of deep-fried bread crumblies onto each paper plate. It’s his favorite part of the three-piece fish dinner. He likes everything about KFC’s Extra Crispy Chicken except the actual chicken beneath the Extra Crispy.

A McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder burger has 520 calories and 26 fat grams. A McDonald’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich has 530 calories and 26 fats grams. Call it a push. But when you’re really, really hungry, nothing tops a freshly grilled, sloppy, messy, medium-rare burger.

Eat this — not that

Just me, but choosing fried chicken sandwiches over a thick juicy burger is just one more culinary error that’s taken hold in the U.S. Here’s just a partial list of my personal “should eat this, not that.”

English muffins, not burger buns. A buttered toasted English muffin, all by itself, is a delicious late-night snack. We don’t know what a plain burger would taste like. Nobody can bear the thought.

Fried clams, not shrimp, crab or even lobster. And fried clams are a hundred thousand times better than crawfish. Plus your hands won’t stink for a week. Fried clams are super sweet and crunchy. Next time you’re at Long John Silver’s, get the fried clam add-on.

Oranges, not grapefruits. Fun fact: grapefruit consumption in the U.S. has dropped by 80 percent in the past two decades. That’s because grapefruit can cause adverse reactions in people taking medicine for anxiety, cholesterol, or high blood pressure — which is pretty much everybody today. Grapefruits are stupid sour. How good can grapefruits be if you scrunch your face and shake when you eat one? As comedian Gary Gulman puts it, “grapefruits are so vile, they should be classified as a vegetable.”

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