We're living in the golden age of fast-food fried chicken
Food and restaurant consultants Baum + Whitman kicked off the year by naming fried chicken one of the top trends to watch out for in 2016.
In fact, two of the biggest names in the restaurant industry - David Chang and Danny Meyer - already established fried chicken as an essential trend the prior year, with Shake Shack's launch of the Chick'n Shack sandwich and Chang's fried chicken concept Fuku.
Still, neither Fuku nor Shake Shack's entries into the world of fried chicken can be discussed without mentioning Chick-fil-A, which Chang name dropped as an inspiration of Fuku. Chick-fil-A exploded from a regional chain to the No. 1 chicken chain in the US by sales in recent years. In 2015, system-wide sales topped $6 billion, and the company reported that same-store sales growth (sales at stores open more than a year) were in the double-digits.
Business Insider/Hayley Peterson
Business Insider/Hayley Peterson
Even non-chicken fast-food chains are adding more fried chicken options to the menu. In 2015, Burger King launched its Chicken Fries and McDonald's reintroduced Chicken Selects. Taco Bell is planning a national launch of a taco that uses fried chicken as the tortilla, as well as testing other fried-chicken menu items.
Part of the explosion of fried chicken in the fast-food and fast-casual industry is due to lower chicken prices.
However, another factor is simply that Americans are craving fried chicken. Customers are increasingly reporting that they'll consider visiting a chicken chain the next time they visit a fast-food restaurant, according to YouGov Brand Index data. According to the public perception tracker, the chicken sector has been the No. 1 category in the fast-food business by purchase consideration since April, when it eclipsed the burger sector.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, fried chicken was widely seen as an unhealthy option with negative health associations. KFC was the largest chicken chain by sales in the US at the time - but, it wasn't doing much to boost fried chicken's reputation. The chain struggled to promote its chicken as a high-quality product, instead debuting stunt menu items like the infamous Double Down.
However, in 2016, fried chicken has somehow transformed into something that customers see as quality food - and maybe even somewhat healthy.
The involvement of well-respected and high-profile concepts like Shake Shack and Fuku played a role in making quick-service fried chicken trendy, as opposed to simply a greasy guilty pleasure.
Chick-fil-A, which has extremely high food ratings, also epitomizes customers' changing perspective. The brand is the rare fast-food chain to successfully appeal to parents - notoriously the most difficult customers to convince on nutrition. The chain offers better-for-you menu items like the Egg White Grill and a kale-and-broccolini "superfood" side.
Now, KFC is similarly trying to convince customers of its culinary credentials. The fried chicken chain is doubling down on telling its "food story," with new menu items inspired by regional cult classics like Nashville Hot Chicken and signs in all remodeled stores revealing where the chicken is from and who is working in the location's kitchen that day.
"The idea of origin and where the chicken is from, how it is prepared, who is preparing it, is critically important," KFC CMO Kevin Hochman told Business Insider, who says that one of the current driving forces in KFC marketing is highlighting these issues.
Even Taco Bell's Naked Chicken Chalupa is being perceived as nutritious by customers, instead of being shamed as the second coming of the Double Down.
"We were getting feedback like, 'It's so healthy. It's so fresh,'" Kat Garcia, Taco Bell's senior manager of marketing, told BuzzFeed News in May." That really surprised us because it's fried chicken."
Two of the biggest trends in the fast-food industry in 2016 are the move toward more genuine, natural food and the growth of fried chicken. While these two goals may seem to contradict eachother, the trends are in fact working together and feeding off each other.
The US is entering a golden age of fried chicken. Instead of gut-busting grease, however, this new era means fast-food chains will be serving up higher-quality chicken than ever before.
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