Chicken has become the go-to protein in restaurants; it is currently the most affordable protein in the market, especially compared to skyrocketing beef prices. It dons a notable healthy halo (based on preparation, of course) and is a versatile meat that can shine as a center-of-the-plate main course, or support leafy greens in a healthy salad.

With a plethora of positives, restaurant operators have been clamoring to create new, craveable chicken items for their customers. This, in turn, has changed the landscape of the quick service chicken category. In just the last three years, both quick service and fast casual restaurants have increased the number of chicken dishes on the menu.  According to Mintel’s Menu Insights, fast food posted a total of 3% growth in chicken items and fast casual increased 9%.  This proliferation has expanded outside of traditional chicken-specific chains such as KFC and Popeyes and infiltrated other fast food restaurants such as Wendy’s and McDonalds,  along with the coveted fast casual segment. As a consequence, chicken items at restaurants have deviated from buckets of bone-in chicken and have expanded into spicy chicken sandwiches, grilled chicken wraps, and chicken breakfast biscuits.

The current growth in competitors caused a major shift in chicken leaders. In late March 2014, Bloomberg announced that Chick-fil-A’s 2013 sales have surpassed their main rival, KFC – even with significantly fewer store counts. With Chick-fil-A at the helm of the chicken category, the other chicken players are left to figure out a new game plan.  Here’s a look at what some of the other brands are doing to make some noise in a crowded market.

  • Approximately a week after slipping to the number two spot for chicken, KFC’s parent company, Yum Brands, announced its latest chicken restaurant prototype: Super Chix – Chicken and Fries. The current menu, which is being tested in Arlington, Texas, leans towards “simple”: a chicken sandwich (with customizable toppings), chicken tenders, Caesar and club salads and frozen custard are among the offerings at the new test restaurant. This is the second fast casual-esque restaurant experiment from the Yum Brands; KFC Eleven, which borrows a Chipotle-like assembly line, is still in the testing phase (Chicago Sun Times).
  • El Pollo Loco, a fast casual chicken concept with a Mexican flare, has been vying for investment banks to help launch its IPO, and in April 2014, the company named Jefferies Group LLC and Morgan Stanley as their lead banks. This future IPO launch is indicative of the popularity of fast casual restaurants, and the growth that they’ve posted over the last few years (Reuters).
  • Asking a girl to the prom just got more interesting, with a KFC kit that allows recipients to make a corsage featuring fried chicken drumsticks on a bed of baby’s breath. The kit sells for $20 and includes a KFC $5 gift card that recipients can take to a KFC store in order to choose their favorite recipe. The florist company making up the kits, Nanz & Kraft, says the kits are going fast and that they are shipping them nationwide. This “prom”-otion ties into Millennials’ desire to identify with fun brands, and KFC found a good way to get some notable attention. The quirkiness of a KFC corsage is something that teens can make their own. Obviously, recipients must have a sense of humor, so girls who take going to prom seriously would not be a good target audience (USA Today).

Katrina Fajardo joined Mintel’s Foodservice reports team with a background that includes data analysis, presentations to restaurant operators and food manufacturers, and consumer behavior tracking. She is now involved in researching and writing reports that cover the broad, evolving world of Foodservice, including commercial, non-commercial, and menu exploration. Her focus is to create insightful and actionable reports that deliver valuable takeaways for clients.