Product Managers Prepare To Go To Battle Over Fried Chicken

Product managers have to provide their customers with what they want
Product managers have to provide their customers with what they want
Image Credit: Thomas Hawk

You would think that being a burger product manager would be a fairly simple job: you get the burger, you make the burger, you sell the burger. However, once upon a time it might have been that simple; however, these days it has become much more complicated. If you can ignore for a moment the fact that you are facing a great deal of competition, it now turns out that your customer’s tastes are changing. Burger product managers have a challenge on their hands and they are going to have to get creative and change their product development definition.

Turns Out That It’s All About Chicken

Product managers at least 10 major U.S. fast-food chains have introduced fried-chicken sandwiches in the past three months, or are set to shortly. Many of those product managers who are peddling the new poultry items work at companies better known as hamburger chains, including McDonald’s, Shake Shack and Jack in the Box. Restaurant operators who have been grappling with slowdowns and restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, aim to try to capture consumers’ enthusiasm for crispy, breaded-chicken sandwiches. Once upon a time that fervor helped build Chick-fil-A into one of the nation’s top fast-food chains over the past decade, and made Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen offering a social-media sensation after its 2019 debut. Successes like this would look good on anyone’s product manager resume.

The chicken-sandwich war, as product managers describe it, means diners have lots of options – such as a Korean-style iteration at Shake Shack, a McDonald’s version topped with spicy pepper sauce and a new KFC offering that the chain bills as its “best chicken sandwich ever.” The sandwich craze also might bring lasting changes to the restaurant business, with product managers spending thousands of dollars on new equipment for battering chicken filets to compete for what some franchisees say is the future of eating out.

Burgers are the still top sellers at fast-food restaurants…but breaded-chicken sandwiches have been gaining ground. As an example of this, Shake Shack began selling its new fried-chicken sandwich in the burger chain’s South Korean restaurants during the fall, before it made its debut in the U.S. One of the first limited-time items it put on menus during the pandemic was a spicy chicken sandwich. Stake Shack product managers just want to sell more chicken. Customers are always going to love burgers and chicken, and they want to be known for both. Fast-food restaurants remain bastions of beef, with Big Macs, Whoppers and other burgers outselling breaded-chicken sandwiches by roughly 3-to-1.

What Comes Next?

Hailing the new chicken competition are poultry executives, who face pandemic-constrained dining and surging grain prices. Chicken sandwiches tend to be more profitable than beef ones sold in chain restaurants, as they draw on a cheaper commodity. Chicken sandwiches typically cost less on menus than big burgers, a possible draw for budget-conscious consumers during the pandemic.

Restaurant chains and franchisees are currently investing heavily in the battle. KFC said it worked with six bakeries in order to find a bun able to handle its quarter-pound white-meat filet that will make its nationwide debut in February, a chicken patty about 20% larger than its existing crispy option. Church’s Chicken owners spent about $3,000 per restaurant to buy equipment to make the chain’s new chicken sandwich, while Burger King owners are buying battering stations to install in kitchens as they test a hand-breaded chicken sandwich.

At McDonald’s, which hasn’t had a Southern-style battered-chicken sandwich on its U.S. menus nationwide for years, product managers at franchisees have been pushing for one. They know that they can’t afford to be last in a category that clearly is the future of fast food. Responding to customer demand, McDonald’s product managers said they would begin selling a Crispy Chicken Sandwich with crinkle-cut pickles on a buttered potato bun, while adding two other chicken sandwiches to the permanent menu. McDonald’s product managers told franchisees during an internal meeting that a successful crispy-chicken-sandwich launch was a priority. Product managers said they were studying how to introduce more chicken at breakfast, an option long sought by franchisees in the South.

What All Of This Means For You

The world of burger product managers is currently undergoing a significant transformation. What used to be a pretty straightforward job has all of sudden become much more complicated. It turns out that what customers really want these days is chicken. Burger product managers are having to study their product manager job description and scramble to find ways to meet the new need. Most of the major fast food chains are in the process of introducing new chicken sandwiches. Some chains have built their entire business on the success of their chicken offerings. Offering chicken sandwiches can provide customers with more options. However, when a chain starts to offer chicken sandwiches, they have to make investments in order to serve the new chicken products. Product managers believe that customers will always buy both burgers and chicken. They just want to meet all of their customer’s needs. Chicken sandwiches generally cost less than burgers. In order to start offering chicken, restaurant chains are investing heavily in order to prepare and serve the chicken. Even McDonalds is preparing to introduce a new chicken sandwich. Clearly the world has changed. Customers who visit burger joints are no longer going to be satisfied with just being offered burgers – now they want chicken. Burger product managers are in the process of trying to determine how they can shift to providing this new type of product. Since it looks like just about everyone is trying to do this, we’ll have to keep our eyes open and discover who ends up doing it the best.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that burger chains should stop selling burgers and focus on chicken?

Click here to get automatic updates when The Accidental Product Manager Blog is updated.
P.S.: Free subscriptions to The Accidental Product Manager Newsletter are now available. It’s your product – it’s your career. Subscribe now: Click Here!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

You would think that if you were a product manager at one of the world’s largest retail companies, getting into a new line of business would not be all that hard to do. I mean your company has deep pockets and can probably spend a lot of money to do whatever everyone else in this new market is doing. The result isn’t if you are going to be successful, it’s really more a question of just how successful you are going to be. As Walmart has gotten into the home grocery delivery business, their product managers have discovered that even being big may not be enough to ensure that they will be a success.