McDonald’s new weapon in the chicken sandwich wars can’t match the firepower of the superpower Chick-fil-A.

The taste test

On March 24, 2021, I decided to give the Golden Arches’ new, fried chicken sandwich a try and was definitely disappointed. I stopped in at around lunchtime on a dreary day and ordered the deluxe version of McDonald’s Corp.’s new crispy chicken sandwich, which sports a smattering of mayonnaise along with a trio of tomato slices and a handful of lettuce on top of the fried boneless, skinless breast filet.

As to be expected, ordering was easy, accurate and I was on my way in less than five minutes. The sandwich itself did not meet the standards of the Chick-fil-A entry. I found it unappealingly oily, lacking in seasoning and thoroughly forgettable. I ate many, many, many McChickens as a younger man and honestly expected a better entry from the quick-serve restaurant (QSR) market leader. I won’t be coming back for another one.

The chain rolled out three new chicken sandwiches in February 2021. Perhaps McDonald’s new crispy chicken sandwich – a more similar product to Chick-fil-A’s standard bearer – would have made a closer comparison but the keystone of the sandwich, the chicken, was without question lacking in comparison to Chick-fil-A’s version.

A quick review of online reviews of the sandwiches matches my assessment that McDonald’s new chicken sandwiches are serviceable but unlikely to cause a stir the way Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen Inc.'s much-vaunted Cajun-style sandwich did in 2019. One reviewer wrote, “McDonalds ... has a long history of rolling out premium chicken sandwiches that, for whatever reason, never quite catch on.”

Playing catch-up

My opinion is ultimately a trivial matter, but McDonald’s rollout of the new sandwich is decidedly not.

Amid a pandemic which plays into the hands of the established titans of drive-through dining, the QSR answered a call from its franchisees to release a chicken sandwich that could compete with the cornerstone of Chick-fil-A Inc.'s incredibly successful franchise. If you ask me, this entry can’t match it but it's up to McDonald’s millions of customers to decide if this new chicken sandwich can change the tide of the war. Mickey D’s is, after all, just another combatant in the widening chicken sandwich war which now includes nearly every chicken-focused QSR and fast casual restaurant in the U.S.

Imitation, of course, is the sincerest form of flattery. As I’ve pointed out before in this column, Chick-fil-A brought in $12.67 billion in total sales in 2019, according to Nation’s Restaurant News. That total is slightly more than a quarter of McDonald’s $40.41 billion in systemwide sales in 2019 but is outstanding considering Chick-fil-A runs less than 20% as many locations as McDonald’s – 2,400 versus 13,000 – and that Chick-fil-A operates 15 and a half hours a day, six days a week, compared with most McDonald's running 24/7.

War is good for the chicken industry

As Mark Jordan, executive director of LEAP Market Analytics, pointed out in a recent WATT Poultry Chat interview, the war is great for the chicken industry and peaking at the perfect time. As he said at the time, the chicken sandwich wars are a boon for the boneless, skinless chicken breast. Although the cut was traditionally king among poultry products, it has fallen out of favor with consumers lately due to a growing preference for dark meat cuts like thighs and wings.

The conflict is a win-win for the retailers and the chicken industry. As he said, the QSR chains saw this as an opportunity to get a deal on boneless, skinless breast filets. Ultimately, growing demand from the restaurant chains – which have survived and been better equipped to succeed during the pandemic – is supporting prices for breast meat and is therefore a boost for the chicken industry as a whole.