Feature: Chicken kings – the rise of chicken in fast food

By Michael Barker

As changing diets and consumer trends bring an influx of new restaurants and menu options into the market, chicken has the opportunity to be the meat of choice for the modern generation.

When KFC suffered its infamous shortages earlier this year, the outcry was extraordinary. As hundreds of restaurants were closed and menus severely limited following the fast-food chain’s ill-fated decision to switch supply from Bidvest to DHL, fans took to Twitter in their droves to howl their discontent at being unable to get their fried chicken fix.

It just goes to show how far chicken, once the unfashionable poor relation of the meat family in the eating-out sector, has come. In 2017 UK consumers wolfed down an estimated £2.2 billion in chicken restaurants, according to Mintel, with that figure predicted to rise to £2.6 billion by 2022. As diets change and the foodservice market remoulds itself to meet the needs of millennials, flexitarians and those with real or perceived food intolerances, there is a huge opportunity for poultry to cement its new position as the meat of choice for the modern generation.

Last year, chicken overtook pork as the most ordered protein in the UK when eating out of home, with figures from NPD Group showing 16.6% of visits to restaurants included the purchase of the white meat. That compared to 16.2% for pork, which it surpassed around the turn of 2017, and beef on 14.2%. In quick service restaurants, chicken appears in 17% of visits, making it 5% more important than beef, while chicken is also being increasingly ordered at lunch in full service restaurants.

Juliet Cordery, UK foodservice account manager at NPD Group, says this upswing can be put down to chicken being seen as a healthier protein with less impact on the environment, which fits more into the modern consumer’s mindset when they come to making their food choices. “As well as this, operators are responding and expanding their chicken offering, plus in the last few years we have seen lots of chicken-focused restaurants opening up, much like the premium burger trend that happened prior to this,” she adds.

There’s also the fact that poultry’s cheaper price point makes it more attractive to operators thanks to its increased profit potential, as well as the important detail that it appeals to children and has great flexibility within menus.

It’s no surprise then, that the biggest player in the global fast-food market – McDonald’s – feels it can’t ignore the trend. According to Bloomberg, the burger behemoth has even outlined a project, known as ‘Better Chicken’, to establish McDonald’s as a bona fide chicken outlet in the eyes of the public. The strategy focuses on improving the taste of its chicken products, as well as marketing itself more as a destination for chicken lovers.

A McDonald’s spokesperson remained coy on its strategy when approached by Poultry Business, preferring instead to focus on the range of choices that its customers can pick from. “Our menu is always evolving to provide a range of choices for our customers,” the spokesperson said. “We now offer a host of different chicken items on our menu from the McChicken sandwich to the Chicken Legend and Crispy Chicken Wraps and Selects, and not forgetting our ever-popular Chicken McNuggets. Our Big Flavour Wraps are increasingly popular, delivering robust growth in 2017 and growing more than 10% year on year in both volume and value.”

It might be premature to proclaim the death of the Big Mac – particularly as McDonald’s recently released Grand Big Mac and Big Mac Jr variants on its signature burger – but the direction of travel is clear and analysts say it’s as much about ensuring it has a broader offer that appeals to all. “Chicken has been an important contributor to McDonald’s turnover for a number of years, with some sources even claiming it accounts for more than 50 per cent of McDonald’s sales,” says foodservice consultant Peter Backman. “And it’s already a competitor to KFC in the poultry segment. But fundamentally the McDonald’s brand is built on burgers, and burgers means beef. It’s unlikely it will change that position. Beefburgers will remain at the core of the offer, but it’s the constant product innovation that maintains McDonald’s position in the marketplace. This gives it a major point of difference to KFC thanks to its diverse menu options – beef, chicken, fish, vegetarian – appealing to a wider customer base.”

The arrival of new players into the market is adding a further dimension. Earlier this year it was revealed that 2 Sisters boss Ranjit Boparan has signed a franchise agreement to bring the Slim Chickens name to the UK and Ireland, while Mitchells & Butlers has been rolling out its Chicken Society brand over the last year.

There’s still some way to go to replicate the phenomenal success of fast-chicken restaurants in the US, though, and the increasingly fierce competition in the sector means it can be hard to carve a niche. Backman believes that while brands will come and go, the likes of KFC and Nando’s will continue thanks to their USPs. “Nando’s is a brand that appeals to younger people who, in turn, bring their parents,” he points out. “KFC has strategically-placed sites with great customer appeal among the male millennial demographic.”

To stand out in an increasingly congested crowd, food marketing expert Professor David Hughes says it’s all about the sell, adding value by presenting chicken in a way that makes it sound more premium. “Chicken doesn’t have to be cheap meat,” he explains. “If you add enough adjectives to it, then it can be seriously expensive. Add in words like free-range, slow-growing, farm-specific, special breed, full regional provenance etc and the price goes up. In M&S one can pay £20/kg for chicken with adjectives or pop along to a tacky foodservice outlet and you can buy fried chicken that’s cheap as chips. The growth area of the market is the chicken with adjectives section, not the commodity chicken where there are concerns about animal welfare, antibiotics, hormones etc.”

It’s on this last point that British farmers hope procurement managers are listening. Provenance has not tended to be as big an issue in foodservice as it has at retail, and encouraging consumers to look out for home-produced poultry would seem a natural next step.

With figures from Mintel revealing that 44 per cent of Britons limit the amount of red meat they consume, it might just be that the real competition comes from the growing vegetarian and vegan population, but the flip side of that coin is that the current craze for protein is encouraging restaurants to bring more, and varied, poultry options onto their menus.

And when a young YouTuber named Elijah Quashie, aka The Chicken Connoisseur, can attract millions of views reviewing fast-chicken places, it’s clear that this is one bubble that is showing no signs of bursting.

The battle for the poultry pound: How the major players are shaping up


It’s been an annus horribilis so far for chicken giant KFC, which suffered weeks of closures and disruption in winter following its move to switch logistics operations from Bidvest to DHL. Hammered by consumers and trade unions alike, KFC even returned with its tail between its legs to Bidvest, with the firm signing a new agreement to supply up to 350 of its 900 UK and Ireland restaurants. 


Mention Peri-Peri in Britain a decade ago and you would likely receive nothing but blank faces, but these days the Afro-Portuguese fusion at chicken chain Nando’s is almost as famous as McDonald’s iconic Big Mac. Restaurants often feature queues as consumers’ love of its format shows no sign of abating, and with turnover rising a healthy 13.9% to £847.9m in its latest accounts Nando’s looks set to remain a huge hitter in the chicken market.


Things are going well at McDonald’s, which recorded a six per cent global sales rise in its latest accounts. Its biggest commitment this year has been a move towards reformulating its products to lower calorie counts and offering healthier alternatives. Examples include a new Happy Meal entrée in Italy called the Junior Chicken – a lean grilled chicken protein sandwich. It follows moves to remove artificial preservatives from Chicken McNuggets in the US.

Slim Chickens

With Boparan Restaurant Group snapping up the chance to bring US chain Slim Chickens to the UK, it’ll be fascinating to see how the format fares. Boparan will be hoping Slim Chickens opens to the same kind of fevered enthusiasm that greeted fast-food burger brand Five Guys, which saw consumers queuing round the block despite a price point roughly double that at mainstream competitors McDonald’s and Burger King.

Chicken Cottage

Franchise outfit Chicken Cottage describes itself as having “the heritage and familiarity of a large chain, but feels like a liberated restaurant”, trumpeting value and quality with speedy service. With 84 locations listed on its website, the brand has quietly established itself as a midweight player on the fast-food scene.


Family business Favorite started life in 1986, and under its strapline ‘Britain’s Tastiest Chicken’ claims to be one of the largest chicken franchises in the UK. It’s menu includes such options as the Snack Rappa, Family Roundhouse Combo and Chuckie’s Kids Choice Meal.

Sam’s Chicken

Another franchise operation, predominantly London-based Sam’s Chicken has built up 34 outlets in Britain since launching in 1990. Opening often very late at night, the company says its success has been built on developing its own “secret mix of spices that goes into the flour preparation and process of cooking that gives the crispy golden brown chicken”.

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