How Fried Chicken Sandwiches Became America’s Favorite Food

Susannah Chen
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2017 was the year of La Croix. 2018 was all about Harry and Meghan. If you’re wondering what we’ll look back on for this year, mark our words: 2019 is the year of the fried chicken sandwich.

Unless you’ve been living off the grid, chances are that you’ve heard about the fried chicken sandwich’s sudden ascent, but here’s a quick primer just in case. On August 12, fast-food chain Popeyes debuted a new nationwide item, a “delicious buttermilk-battered and hand-breaded white meat chicken filet served on a buttery, toasted brioche bun.” While Popeyes executives expected it to be a bestseller—they called the sandwich the “biggest product launch in 30 years”—they were hardly prepared for its viral success.

Fried chicken lovers waited in line for hours just for the chance to order one. Employees were forced to work overtime. The sandwich took a life of its own on the Internet, where it was the subject of countless memes, the source of joy, humor, and tragedy. Within days, the sandwich had sold out, but not without reigniting America’s affection for fried chicken sandwiches first.

Sandwiches stuffed with fried chicken are nothing new—so why did the country go crazy? There were a lot of reasons. To start, Americans have a long history of fondness for fried chicken. “Fried chicken is at once a totem of tradition and a lowest-common-denominator lunch,” said John T. Edge, a food historian and author of Fried Chicken: An American Story. According to the book, floured pieces of chicken fried in fat have been a part of the country’s culinary repertoire for at least a couple hundred years, if not longer. “In the eighteenth century—while cooking for (and sometimes under the direction of) white slaveholders—women of African descent honed a dish we now know as fried chicken,” Edge wrote.

In the mid-1900s, fried chicken became massively accessible across the country, setting the stage for the massive appeal it has today. Harland “Colonel” Sanders began franchising his concept, Kentucky Fried Chicken, in the 1950s, expanding to more than 600 stores within a decade. Seeing the international success of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Louisiana businessman Al Copeland founded a rival chicken chain, Popeyes, in 1972; within 10 years, he had more than 500 locations.

Around the same time, one Georgia fast-food operator discovered that a chicken sandwich could cook in the same amount of time as a hamburger, and this became the basis for a third prominent national chicken chain, Chick-fil-A, that saw great success by reinventing America’s favorite fried bird in a portable sandwich. “We Didn’t Invent the Chicken, Just the Chicken Sandwich,” its trademarked slogan boasted.

Others tried to capitalize on the success of the fried chicken sandwich. McDonald’s released the analogues like the McChicken, Ultimate Chicken Sandwich, and Mighty Chicken Sandwich. KFC caused a stir in 2010 with the Double Down, a cheesy bacon sandwich with two pieces of boneless fried chicken in place of a bun. Yet none of Chick-fil-A’s competitors were quite able to replicate its lasting fried chicken sandwich success. In recent years, overall fast-food sales have stagnated across the board, with one exception: Chick-fil-A, which blew past competitors’ sales to become the third-largest chain in America.

This is due in large part to yet another factor: America’s growing appetite for chicken. In the past five years, chicken has become the most popular meat in the country, thanks to its low prices, quick prep time, and healthful reputation. As a result, fast food chicken revenue has nearly tripled over the past 10 years.

But accessibility, price, healthiness, and prep time are still only part of the equation. It was the response generated by the debate between brands on social media that took the sandwich’s sales into overdrive. A week after the release of the Popeyes chicken sandwich, Chick-fil-A took to Twitter to post a not-so-subtle jab at Popeyes with message that read: “Bun + chicken + pickles = all the <3 for the original.”

The Popeyes response—a mere two words on Twitter—prompted endless replies in the form of memes from customers, who were captivated by the heated war of words. Suddenly, drive-thru lines were backed up for blocks. There was even a clip of the $3.99 sandwich being resold on eBay for more than $7,000. Although inventory was projected to last through the end of September, Popeyes sold out in its more than 3,000 stores within two weeks.

“Unfortunately, we’re sold out,” the chain announced on Twitter, along with a video montage of fans mobbing locations for the chicken sandwich. Popeyes initially didn’t have a date to share when the item would be back in stock, which only contributed to sandwich mania. When the item was finally reintroduced, months later, on November 3—incidentally, National Sandwich Day, as well as a Sunday, the one day of the week that Chick-fil-A is closed—visits to Popeyes on the day of the relaunch even exceeded the original. Even celebrities like Justin Bieber felt the need to weigh in on the hype.

Regardless of how you feel about the social media hype, it’s clear that demand for fried chicken sandwiches won’t be dying down anytime soon. With fried chicken collectively on America’s brain, other fast-casual spots have been weighing in on the cultural conversation with their spin on the creation. If you’re hoping to get in on the craze, here are a few places to get your fried chicken sandwich fix in the Bay Area.

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San Francisco:

Popeyes

Western Addition, SF

Because to really experience the phenomenon, you have to begin with the chain that started it all.

Proposition Chicken

Lower Haight, SF

A farm-to-fork take on the classic made with sustainable ingredients, like Mary’s free-range chicken and Amoroso hearth-baked rolls.

Red Ribbon Fried Chicken

Mission, SF

Once you’ve tired of the basic fried chicken sandwich, explore more elaborate options like a buffalo chicken version, a Dagwood version, and a chicken Caesar version.

Flybird

Downtown, SF

Go international, with fried chicken sandwich inspiration from Korea, Mexico, Greece, and other fried chicken around the world.

East Bay:

Popeyes

Downtown, Oakland

Because to really experience the phenomenon, you have to begin with the chain that started it all.

Proposition Chicken

Lakeshore, Oakland

A farm-to-fork take on the classic made with sustainable ingredients, like Mary’s free-range chicken and Amoroso hearth-baked rolls.

Home of Chicken and Waffles

Produce & Waterfront, Oakland

It may be called “Sabrina’s Select Chicken Burger,” but let’s call a spade a spade: this breaded, all-white meat creation embodies the fried chicken sandwich.

Krispy Krunchy Chicken

Downtown, Oakland

You can’t find a better deal than the Krispy Chicken Sandwich at this fried chicken specialist.

Ike’s Love & Sandwiches

Waverly, Oakland

Get the Bakesale—fried chicken, ranch, and American cheese—and make it extra crunchy by ordering it on Dutch Crunch bread.

South Bay:

Popeyes

West San Jose

Because to really experience the phenomenon, you have to begin with the chain that started it all.

Krispy Krunchy Chicken

San Tomas, Campbell

You can’t find a better deal than the Chicken Sandwich at this Campbell fried chicken specialist.

Rock Bottom Brewery

Central Campbell

The RB Spicy Chicken sandwich at this Campbell brewpub comes with IPA beer-battered chicken.

Starbird Chicken

Mountain View

The Starbird sandwich at this Sunnyvale option features indulgence (battered chicken) and restraint (dino kale slaw, avocado) at the same time.

The Counter

West San Jose

The Southern-style fried chicken sandwich is brined in buttermilk and served with jalapeño jack cheese on a brioche bun.

Peninsula:

SSF Chickenbox

South San Francisco

At SSF Chickenbox, the Fried Chicken Sandwich features fried chicken breast, shredded lettuce, house made pickles and special sauce on a brioche bun.

Jollibee

Daly City

The chicken sandwiches on the menu at this long-standing Filipino institution are guaranteed to be solid.

Half Moon Bay Brewing Company

El Granada

The chicken sandwiches on the menu at this long-standing Filipino institution are guaranteed to be solid.

Starbird Chicken

Foster City

Try the Nashville Hotbird, a Starbird take on Nashville's famous fiery-hot chicken.

Shake Shack

Stanford, Palo Alto

Diners watching their carb intake can request a lettuce-wrapped Chick'n Shack that excludes the bun.

Prosperous Fried Chicken

Lakewood, Sunnyvale

This classic rendition also includes a creamy cheese topping and a side of fries.

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