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Popeye’s chicken sandwich domination faces headwinds in 2021

Brian Sozzi
·Editor-at-Large
·3 min read

With all due respect to the return of McDonald’s saucy McRib on Dec. 2, it was yet again the beloved Popeye’s fried chicken sandwich that dominated the fast-food game in 2020.

But whether Popeye’s salivating sandwich could maintain that domination in 2021 is a giant unknown, says one Wall Street analyst who highlights several competitors entering the fried chicken space anew.

“What’s interesting now across the industry is what happens as McDonald’s launches a new chicken sandwich in the earlier part of 2021. Burger King is coming out with its version [of the Popeye’s chicken sandwich] under the same umbrella as Popeye’s under Restaurant Brands (QSR). So we think those will be real needle movers for a couple of those brands,” UBS restaurant analyst Dennis Geiger said on Yahoo Finance Live.

For Popeye’s owner Restaurant Brands, continued domination in the chicken sandwich wars has meant some juicy quarterly sales gains for the Louisiana cuisine inspired fast-food chain in 2020.

Popeye’s — a mostly U.S. operation — saw same-store sales surge 26.2% in the first quarter, 24.8% in the second quarter and 17.4% for the third quarter. The gains reflect continued strong affinity by consumers for a sandwich that was released in August 2019 and quickly went onto social media stardom.

The chicken in Popeye's sandwich crunches audibly when you bite in, with all those nooks and crannies on the surface shattering into a thousand delicious pieces. This makes for an exciting contrast to the soft bun. The chicken itself is also juicy and well-seasoned, without tasting wildly over-salted like the fried-chicken sandwiches at McDonald's; $3.99 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
The chicken in Popeye's sandwich crunches audibly when you bite in, with all those nooks and crannies on the surface shattering into a thousand delicious pieces. This makes for an exciting contrast to the soft bun. The chicken itself is also juicy and well-seasoned, without tasting wildly over-salted like the fried-chicken sandwiches at McDonald's; $3.99 (Nick Kindelsperger/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Burger King — also owned by Restaurant Brands — has notched same-store sales declines in all three quarters of 2020, absent such a magical traffic-driving sandwich.

What has made the sales gains this year at Popeye’s more impressive is they come amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has ravaged the restaurant industry. Big fast-food chains such as Restaurant Brands and McDonald’s haven’t been exempt from the fallout as they have had to shut stores through the year to meet evolving state mobility guidelines. In those more lenient states on COVID-19, consumers have stayed away from eating inside restaurants for fear of getting sick.

“The Popeye’s story has been incredible. The chicken sandwich was a great opportunity to bring new customers and new guests to try the great-tasting chicken, whether it’s bone in or the sandwich itself,” Restaurant Brands CEO Jose Cil explained on Yahoo Finance Live. “The brand is very well situated for long-term growth, we think, here in the U.S. and beyond.”

Restaurant Brands investors are banking on the stay-ability of that magic fried chicken sandwich at Popeye’s. Although reasonably speaking, its popularity could cool down a touch in 2021 amid some new entrants.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and anchor at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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