Someday, when schoolchildren read in their history textbooks about the Great Chicken Sandwich Wars of 2019, fast-food giant McDonald's might merit only a footnote.
The chain this week debuted a limited-edition spicy barbecue chicken sandwich, which naturally drew comparisons to the Popeyes chicken sandwich that famously riveted a nation when it debuted last month and quickly prompted shortages. The Popeyes phenomenon kicked off social media debates over whose spicy chicken - Popeyes or Chick-fil-A, even Wendy's - ruled the roost.
The McDonald's entry seems to be an amalgamation of various spare parts lying around the company garage: the same buttermilk chicken fillet as in its standard crispy chicken sandwich, a sesame-dotted bun that could alternatively house a Big Mac and a lightly spicy barbecue sauce, onions and pickles that instantly bring to mind a McRib.
The Popeyes sandwich became so popular that locations around the country ran out. There were delays at Popeyes drive-throughs and long lines in its restaurants. People began muting the term "chicken sandwich" from their social media feeds.
Even if it instantly seems familiar, the McDonald's sandwich also feels a little tardy to the party. It comes not only on the heels (or should it be tail feathers?) of the viral Popeyes offering, but after franchisees pushed the company to come up with a premium chicken sandwich to rival Chick-fil-A's, CNBC reported in July.
But the sandwich is not exactly a direct clap-back to Popeyes. "This has been in the works for some time as McDonald's is always looking for ways to innovate and meet customer demands," a McDonald's rep wrote in an email. Still, it looks like the chain's future is very chicken-y. A news release this month announcing the upcoming new spicy options called them "just the latest evolution in McDonald's chicken offerings" and offered a tease: "And we can't wait to show you what's next."
Peter Saleh, a managing director and restaurants analyst at financial services firm BTIG, says talk about a chicken sandwich war is overblown. "It's just a chicken sandwich. It's nothing new," he says, referring to the Popeyes-prompted chicken obsession. There's long been an overall trend away from beef and toward chicken, he notes, and McDonald's has introduced and discontinued many chicken offerings.
Basically, Saleh thinks this all might just be a flash in the frying pan. "The takeaway is that the viral nature of some of these marketing tactics is very powerful," he said. "And traditional means of marketing might not be as effective."
In a new TV ad and on its menu, McDonald's describes the new sandwich, along with its new spicy barbecue-sauce-glazed tenders, as having "the flavor that makes you go 'woo!' " But that's not exactly the reaction it's prompting. "You're better off just bringing a bun to Popeyes," food site Eater tweeted, a reference to Popeyes' suggestion that people make a DIY version of the chicken chain's sold-out sandwich. Concluded one online reviewer: "mediocre."
I'd rank it higher than that, though it doesn't approach the Popeyes spicy chicken's holy-grail deliciousness. The patty was incredibly juicy (just like with Kylie Jenner's pillowy lips, I wonder whether injections are involved) and the sauce pleasantly smoky. Underwhelming pickles didn't provide the tangy counterpoint I'd hope for, but after thinking I would just nibble for taste-testing purposes, I wound up eating the whole dang thing.
All of which is to say the new sandwich didn't make me say "woo!" so much as simply "overdue."