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Was the Supposed Fried Chicken Boom Actually a Bust?

Tracking one of the buzziest food trends of 2016

Grand Opening Of Chef Ludo Lefebvre's LudoBird
Fried chicken sandwich
Photo by Matthew Simmons/WireImage

The year 2016 was supposed to be the year of the fried chicken sandwich — and in a way, it was. About two years ago, fast-casual dining became the fastest-growing restaurant segment in the world. By the end of 2015, popular burger chain Shake Shack introduced its first chicken sandwich, trendsetting NYC chef David Chang opened the chicken-centric Fuku, and the Philadelphia-based doughnut and chicken chain Federal Donuts confirmed plans to expand.

Not to be outdone, fast-food chains started introducing new fried chicken items to their menus. In the last couple years, American fast-food fanatics have been sold “Crispy Chicken Shell” tacos, Chicken Fries, and several kinds of buttermilk chicken sandwiches, to name a few. Restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whiteman even predicted the fried chicken sandwich would be one of the top restaurant trends of 2016.

While anecdotally, one could say the fried chicken sandwich was one of 2016’s food stars, statistically speaking, its impact on people’s cravings for fried chicken is a tougher call. It all depends on what dining segment you look at. Chicken restaurants, as a whole, have not seen a higher-than-usual growth. Meanwhile, data shows consumer interest in chicken appears stagnant. Where there was significant growth was in the very specific market of fast-casual chicken sandwiches — but even that is nothing compared to other popular food trends in the year. Let’s review:

Despite the much-hyped new openings and expansions, the number of chicken-themed restaurants in America grew about three percent since 2015, according to Foursquare data, with about 344 new restaurants. That’s similar to the three years prior. No spike there.

Interest in fried chicken is growing, but slowly. On Foursquare’s Swarm app, food “check-ins” for fried chicken restaurants increased slightly in 2016. But prior to that, restaurants featuring fried chicken items had almost no growth. That means the 2016 jump isn’t part of a trend — yet.

The fast-casual chicken scene has seen some success. Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurants Report, which tracks industry progress, showed that limited-service chicken restaurant sales grew eight percent from 2014 to 2015. Popular fast-casual, restaurateur-driven ventures — which are primarily focused on sandwiches — have shown clear success. Shake Shack reported that the new Chicken Shack sandwich is the chain’s third-most popular sandwich. Chang’s Fuku now has a total of four locations across New York City. In the fast-food segment, Chick-fil-A has seen a nine percent growth in sales, according to Technomic.

But overall consumer buzz for chicken appears to lagging, especially compared to interest in other trends like avocado toast and poke. Google search interest for “fried chicken” and “fried chicken restaurants” remains stagnant, according to Google Trends. Searches for “fried chicken sandwiches” didn’t do much better. On top of that, reports about fried chicken’s trendiness seem to stop after 2014 or 2015, showing no huge increases in results.

YouGov BrandIndex, which tracks brand popularity, showed that Americans who say they’d consider purchasing fast-food fried chicken has remained relatively stagnant, compared to 2015, with occasional fluctuations. In fact, BrandIndex data for purchase consideration was slightly lower by August 2016 than it was at the start of 2015. The same is true with how much value Americans say they see in purchasing fried chicken. According to BrandIndex, perception of value was up in summer 2016, compared to the summer before, but still lower than the start of the year before.

But industry insiders who predicted 2016 would be the year of fried chicken sandwiches stand by their claim. Michael Whiteman, co-founder of Baum + Whiteman, says in 2016, consumers saw chefs and restaurateurs do things with fried chicken that were fresh and unique, and that’s what is likely driving buzz. But Whiteman makes an important distinction about what kind of fried chicken is trending. “I’m only defending the sandwich,” Whiteman said. “What’s making the fried chicken so popular is what’s being applied to it.”

Whiteman contends that the fried chicken sandwich will only grow in popularity as more chefs and restaurants experiment with ingredients. And there is still potential that supply and demand will meet. Foursquare, Google Trends, and BrandIndex did show minor growths, with Foursquare checkins showing the most promise.

Compared to other popular cuisines, fried chicken data needs a boost to be considered the trend of the year or even the trend to watch in 2017. It faces stiff competition for that title, namely from Asian cuisine. According to Technomic, sales for limited-service chicken restaurants among the top 500 chain restaurants in America grew almost nine percent in 2015 from the previous year, but noodles saw higher growth — at 10 percent. In the United States, search interest for “noodles,” “udon,” and “ramen” show a noticeable uptick in interest, much steeper than fried chicken. And Foursquare predicts 2017 will be the “year of the noodle,” seeing a 42 percent increase in visits in 2016 and foot traffic growth at six percent per month.

Google Search Interest for Fried Chicken Sandwich, Ramen, and Burritos

As more restaurateurs try to make chicken sandwiches cool, especially in the fast-casual sector, whether their excitement will translate to consumers and create the kind of frenzy we’ve seen with poke or avocado toast has yet to be seen. 2016 was the year of the fast-casual chicken sandwich restaurateur, but not so much for fried chicken consumers, fried chicken cuisine, or even the fried chicken sandwich, when compared to other cuisine.

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