As Taco Bell experiments with two new fried chicken menu items, the Mexican fast-food chain will be facing off against an unexpected competitor — Chick-fil-A.
On Monday, a note from Nomura analyst Mark Kalinowski highlighted Taco Bell’s upcoming test of Crispy Chicken Chips.
“Taco Bell’s Crispy Chicken Chips look like wedge-shaped chicken tenders,” wrote Kalinowski. “Between this test item and the Naked Chicken Chalupa, which used fried chicken as a ‘taco shell,’ Taco Bell clearly wants to figure out innovative ways to use chicken to its advantage.”
Earlier in August, Brand Eating reported that Taco Bell’s “Naked Chicken Chalupa” — a taco that uses fried chicken in the place of a tortilla — is launching across the US next year.
It’s possible that the Crispy Chicken Chips will never be anything except a limited test at Taco Bell — the chain did not provide further information on the item to Business Insider. Still, testing two new fried chicken menu items at a chain known for its quirky takes on Mexican staples is, at first, a little confusing.
However, the decision makes perfect sense in light of the rise of fried chicken in the US in recent years.
Food and restaurant consultants Baum + Whitman kicked off the year by naming fried chicken one of the top trends to watch out for in 2016. In fact, the trend was already in full swing in 2015, with Shake Shack’s launch of the Chick’n Shack sandwich and celebrity chef David Chang’s new fried chicken concept Fuku.
Fried chicken also is also dominating the fast-food industry. KFC is in the midst of a brand revamp, putting its extra crispy and regional takes on fried chicken front and center. And, you can’t talk about the rise of fried chicken without mentioning Chick-fil-A, the chain that has perhaps had the biggest impact on the rise of fried chicken — and Taco Bell’s biggest rival as the chain enters the fried chicken business.
Chick-fil-A exploded from a regional chain to the No. 1 chicken chain in the US by sales in recent years. In 2015,
system-wide sales topped $6 billion, and the company reported that same-store sales growth (sales at stores open more than a year) were in the double-digits. Customers flock to the chain thanks to its superior customer service and chicken that is seen as high-quality, instead of as a greasy nutritional disaster.
The expansion of chicken chains like Chick-fil-A and the rise of new chicken items on fast-food menus — such as Burger King’s Chicken Fries and McDonald’s Chicken Selects — has been spurred in part by low chicken prices. While beef prices have finally dropped in the first half of 2016, chicken prices have also stayed low, making new chicken menu items a wise move for chains like Taco Bell.
Essentially, fried chicken is trending and the cost of adding it to the menu is low enough to make it a good deal for fast-food chains. However, the question remains: can Taco Bell compete with chicken-centric chains like Chick-fil-A when it comes to fried chicken?
Early response to the Naked Chicken Chalupa has been positive.
“It was a little salty initially since you bite into the fried chicken first but balances out once you hit the filling,” writes Brand Eating. “The chicken shell had a substantial crunch as well as a solid kick of spicy heat; much more so than any other current Taco Bell meat option.”
Additionally, customers are increasingly accepting of fast-food chains debuting menu items outside of their traditional purview. Business Insider’s fast-food reviewer deemed Burger King’s Taco Bell-esque Whopperrito “flavorful and delicious,” while McDonald’s has been testing stereotype-smashing options such as kale salad.
Fast-food giants are looking outside of the box for inspiration. At Taco Bell, that may mean drawing from the success of chains like Chick-fil-A — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
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