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McDonald’s Is Desperate for a Trendy Chicken Sandwich — But It Shouldn’t Be

Quit chasing the trends and keep the nuggets coming

A McChicken sandwich sits on its wrapper at McDonald’s. Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

McDonald’s sets out today on a fun little fool’s errand: Serving a new crispy chicken sandwich to rival the success of the ones at Popeyes and Chick-fil-A. It’s a clear attempt to insert itself into the great national chicken sandwich conversation — but nobody was talking about you, McDonald’s. You don’t need to do this.

The new offering, the McDonald’s Crispy Chicken Sandwich, hits menus today at stores in Knoxville and Houston. It’s a fried chicken sandwich topped with butter and crinkle cut dill pickles on a “buttery” potato roll (just like the Popeyes sandwich). A deluxe version has lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Another innovation: They’re served in foil bags, as at Chick-fil-A.

Apparently, McDonald’s franchise owners felt serious FOMO over not having a player in the chicken sandwich wars earlier this year, especially given the sales boost Popeyes experienced as a result: Sandwichmania gave the chain “one of its best quarters in nearly two decades,” according to its parent company, with Popeye’s sales growing more than 10 percent in the third quarter of this year. The National Owners Association board, a group of McD’s franchisees who sound very tired of hearing about how good other chains’ chicken sandwiches are, wrote in a letter to management earlier this year that ”a Chicken Sandwich at McDonald’s should be our top priority.” McDonald’s wants a piece of that action — complete with fries.

But McDonald’s probably doesn’t need it, and it definitely shouldn’t expect to get it. Unlike McDonald’s, Popeyes didn’t — until that new launch — serve a chicken sandwich at all, focusing its menu on whole chicken pieces, tenders, and sides. When Popeyes started serving a chicken sandwich, it was actually news.

But McDonald’s has had lots and lots of chicken sandwich iterations, and a new one will have trouble standing out. On current menus, McDonald’s already offers the McChicken, a chicken cutlet sandwich, and a buttermilk crispy chicken sandwich, a version very similar to the new one, only served on a white roll with an existing filet recipe. As recently as September, McDonald’s threw some spicy barbecue sauce on that chicken sandwich and called it a new challenger to Popeye’s. The verdict? Guilty... of being bad.

What’s particularly frustrating about McDonald’ trend-chasing is that, all the while, an existing chicken hit on its menus goes unheralded: its nuggets. With fried chicken sandwiches the sudden belle of the fast-food ball, how must these forgotten heroes of the McDonald’s menu be left to feel? And why, with its nuggets so perfected, has McDonald’s struggled to nail a straight-up sandwich?

By developing another new item, maybe McDonald’s is overcomplicating its 2020 chicken strategy. Just throw a six-piece nugget order on a potato bun with pickles. Fixed that for you, you’re welcome.