Jul 25, 2022 - Economy

The new fast-food battleground? Chicken nuggets

Illustration of a mountain of chicken nuggets with a flag planted at the top

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Giant restaurant chains like KFC and Boston Market are making big-splash introductions of chicken nuggets on their menus this month, setting up a potential rematch of the epic chicken sandwich wars of 2019.

Why it matters: With chicken consumption on the rise, fast food industry titans think they can boost profits by catering to the nugget-loving tastes of younger consumers — who favor easy-to-grab finger foods and view dinosaur-shaped fare as a cultural touchstone.

Driving the news: KFC began testing new chicken nuggets last week for a limited time in Charlotte, North Carolina, aiming to lure in Gen Z and millennial customers.

  • If it goes well, "the nuggets will replace the popcorn chicken currently on menus," Yahoo! Finance reported.
  • The launch is "a really big deal" that's meant to introduce "a whole new generation" to KFC's original Colonel Sanders recipe, Chris Scott, head chef at KFC U.S., told Yahoo! Finance.
  • "So many of younger consumers are not interested in eating chicken on the bone, for whatever reason," he said.

Other nugget-vendors are lining up to cash in on a childhood favorite:

  • Boston Market just rolled out its first nuggets — in "signature" and "spicy" — and says that its all-white-meat morsels are larger and healthier than competitors, because they're roasted rather than fried.
  • McDonald's — which pioneered the McNugget in 1981 — has brought back its beloved Spicy Chicken McNuggets at some locations for a limited time.
    • In January, it debuted the "Crunchy Double" sandwich — two cheeseburgers on a bed of Chicken McNuggets — based on a popular menu hack.
    • In Australia, it trotted out four new dips: Szechuan, Cajun, Curry and Mighty Hot Sauce.

Not to be outdone, Burger King, which introduced spicy Ghost Pepper Chicken Nuggets in the U.S. last fall, has just brought them to Canada.

  • Wendy's introduced Ghost Pepper Ranch Sauce for its nuggets last summer.

The big picture: Globally, there's an arms race in nugget innovation, with mom-and-pop stores vying with chains to introduce new flavors — like Thai chicken nuggets at Phoenix's Chick-a-Dee and Hawaiian nuggets at Pokemoto.

Flashback: Popeyes — which sparked the chicken sandwich craze three years ago, selling out in a mere two weeks — rolled out its new chicken nuggets a year ago.

  • The company said it took "the quality and flavors of the famous Chicken Sandwich and made it in poppable pieces."
  • It's been trying to revive the hysteria that surrounded its 2019 sandwich rivalry with Chick-fil-A and others.

What they're saying: The burgeoning nugget craze is "largely driven by shifts in Gen Z consumer behavior," says Maeve Webster, president of Menu Matters, a restaurant consultancy.

  • "Since the pandemic, more consumers in general are snacking and looking for those easier-to-eat, smaller bites," she tells Axios.
  • Chicken nuggets also lend themselves to a lot of "customization and experimentation," she said — like using them as a pizza topping or as a base for flavorful sauces. (Chicken nugget poutine, anyone?)

The bottom line: There are good business reasons to throw down those poultry-shaped gloves: By one count, the U.S. fast food chicken market has been growing at nearly 5% a year and is expected to reap $40 billion in revenue in 2022.

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