Confessions of a Chicken Sandwich Hipster
In August 2019, Popeyes changed the landscape of fast food with the introduction of its chicken sandwich. It was, of course, not the first chicken sandwich that Popeyes had introduced, nor was it the first chicken sandwich on a fast food menu not from Chick-Fil-A. But it was different. The combination of size, flavored breading, buttered bread, pickles, and tangy mayonnaise achieved what every brand expects from its products in the 21st century: virality. The Takeout proclaimed it the “biggest food news story of 2019.” Going a step further, a New Yorker headline from the same time read simply: “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America.”
The sandwich was everywhere. Restaurants across America ran out, with lines stretching around blocks and online orders going for several times retail value. Popeyes had to remove the sandwich from its menu for months due to supply chain problems. It returned three months later and sold out once again. America was obsessed over chicken sandwiches, and while the initial insanity has died down, the interest in chicken sandwiches has spread to every major restaurant chain and fast food joint in America, even those that did not offer fried chicken three years ago. The chicken sandwich is here to stay.
Most Americans are happy about this development. Chicken has become the national meat, with 112 pounds eaten per person in 2019, nearly 30 pounds more than beef and 40 pounds more than pork. More chicken sandwiches should be music to the ears of chicken fans and fried food connoisseurs from Maine to Miami and everywhere in between. But I look on these developments with a bit of ambivalence. I am, for lack of a better phrase, a chicken sandwich hipster. I was a fan before they were cool. The craze has upended the market for my favorite childhood food, and I can say with a tinge of sadness that chicken sandwich fans really lost something that day in August when Popeyes launched their killer sandwich app.
I have been eating chicken sandwiches at restaurants for as long as I can remember. As a childhood critic of cheese, I stayed away from burgers. Chicken nuggets seemed puerile to me and once I grew out of kids’ meals I grew unhappy with the typical nugget portion sizes. The fried chicken sandwich was my go-to food. It had everything: bread (to meet the inescapable carb craving), a slab of fried chicken that could weigh a quarter of a pound or more, and some sauce (or delightful pair of sauces) that brought a kick of flavor to the ensemble. There were also sometimes pickles, lettuce, and tomato to bring a bit of crunch and a suggestion of vitamins to the proceedings.
Even in the early 2000s when my love affair with chicken sandwiches began, almost every restaurant had its own sandwich. There was the modest-sized sandwich at McDonald’s, which I alternated with the forever-reliable McChicken. Burger King had the Tendercrisp and the Wendy’s offering came in both traditional and spicy styles. Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. had the Big Chicken, which made up in size what it lacked in quality. There was always Chick-Fil-A spreading its chicken sandwich gospel to the malls and suburbs of America six days of the week. Almost all the fast casual chains had their own entries, from Applebee’s to Chili’s and Ruby Tuesday’s to the Cheesecake Factory. Popeyes even had the forgotten Chicken Po’Boy, a hoagie-type roll filled with chicken tenders, lettuces, and tangy mayo which I ordered at least a dozen times after a Popeyes opened up near my hometown.
It is a myth that all of the sandwiches in the period before the famed Popeyes sandwich were low quality and flavorless. They were not all cheap, pressed patties akin to the earliest offerings at McDonald’s and Burger King. Restaurants had started to utilize whole breast pieces. There were sauces and new toppings, spice mixes in the breading, and new types of bun that cycled through at different locations. Breakfast-focused restaurants placed their patties on biscuits. New entrants changed the formula repeatedly, like the surprisingly delicious chicken parmesan sandwich introduced by almost-national chain Zaxby’s in 2009. The world of chicken sandwiches was as varied and exciting as the market for any other fast food item, and I enjoyed this world on a regular basis.
And then The Sandwich hit. The Popeyes chicken sandwich was a Noah’s Flood of fast food popularity, devastating every other sandwich in its wake and leaving only one true sandwich model. Soon, restaurants one by one began phasing away their old deluxe sandwiches and replacing them with knockoffs of the Popeyes sandwich. The Big Chicken was dead. KFC’s other chicken options were wiped away. The Tendercrisp was gone. Replacing them was the same option: large portion of meat, spiced breading, brioche-type bun, pickles, and mayo. Even Chili’s has copied the model for its chicken sandwich. The greatest variety is in the sauce, as with Zaxby’s inclusion of its house sauce instead of mostly plain mayonnaise.
The new chicken sandwiches are a mixed blessing to me. It is heartening to see the rest of the world enraptured by this product I have enjoyed for so long. I am not like the proverbial hipster who can no longer listen to a band once they have appeared on The Tonight Show. I want to share chicken sandwiches with the world and make this food as popular as the less healthy (and more environmentally suspect) hamburger. But at the same time, chicken sandwiches have changed their character. They can no longer innovate on the sidelines but must take center stage. As a major money-making venture for companies, they have to appeal to as many people as possible, and it is clear that those people want Popeyes knockoffs. So next time you order a chicken sandwich, enjoy it! But remember all of the sandwiches, the Po’Boys and the Tendercrisps and the Big Chickens, that so many of us enjoyed before the chicken sandwich took its turn in the limelight.