Illustration by Ashwin Rodrigues
On August 12, 2019, Popeyes introduced its new chicken sandwich: a piece of fried chicken on a brioche bun with some condiments. The sandwiches could not stay on the shelves. Popeyes declared a shortage of sandwiches by the end of the month. The New Yorker gave its approval to the sandwich, stating that the Popeye’s Sandwich is “here to save America.”
A week later, apparently feeling an existential threat, Chick-fil-A tweeted “Bun + Chicken + Pickles = all the [heart emoji] for the original.” This tweet, perceived as a dig at Popeye’s sandwich, led Popeye’s to tweet a two word rejoinder “...y’all good?” This was not brands pretending to be your friend, this was war. Last week, the New York Times upgraded the battle to a “Fierce Fight for Chicken Sandwich Supremacy,” and McDonald’s declared they would now be participating. In 2020, an advertisement for Wendy’s declared that they did not start what has become known as Chicken Wars, but that their new Classic Chicken Sandwich would end them. It was if Dave Thomas himself was aboard an aircraft carrier to say “Mission Accomplished,” a bad omen the war was in fact far from its conclusion. The Chicken Sandwich Wars have only ratcheted up since then, and now they involve tacos.
Two years after its inception, media and consumers have accepted this narrative of organized conflict regarding mass-production chicken sandwiches. In a rare instance of bipartisan agreement, publications ranging from CNN to CNBC to Yahoo! News to Restaurant Business Online to Hypebeast to FOX News have all adopted the Chicken Wars mindset. There is an off-putting and metallic taste slinging fast food under the guise of "war,” especially since demand for these products has led to actual violence. The craze also highlighted the poor working conditions that go into a $3.99 sandwich. If this is a war, there are casualties. After the Popeye’s sandwiches returned to their menu after a hiatus, a man was stabbed to death for cutting a line of people waiting to order.
Popeye’s employees detailed their exhaustion with the sandwich rush, standing for 10-12 hours a day while interacting with angry customers who demanded the sandwich. “We are busting our butts and breaking our backs and someone threatens to shoot us because we ran out of something,” said Wanda Lavender, who manages a Milwaukee Popeye’s location for $10 an hour, to Vox in 2019. “To all these corporations out there: Give us our due.” Lavender said. “Make sure you take care of the families who are taking care of you.” The current Chicken Sandwich Wars may be a simple branding exercise gone terribly right, one that will fizzle once the corporations find a more successful gimmick. But previous chicken wars have had long lasting effects. America still refers to the Cold War era “Chicken Tax,” a 25% tariff on “light trucks” from Europe, initially made to counter a tariff on American poultry, a period of time known as The Chicken War. To this day, automotive manufacturers will disassemble vehicles only to rebuild them in America to avoid this fee. Even at the time of this earlier war, people identified the ridiculousness of the nomenclature. “The very name given this duel—the chicken war—was ludicrous and the subject of endless jokes and puns,” the Times wrote in 1964. “It was regarded with amusement as a petty squabble in a world of much graver problems.” We will likely reflect on our current chicken wars in the same way. Follow Ashwin Rodrigues on Twitter.