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Data Show Burgers, Chicken Battle for Menu Space

May is National Burger Month, but if the celebrating seems half-hearted, blame chicken, which has been rudely stealing the promotional limelight. Thanks to wholesale prices that favor poultry over beef, it seems that every burger joint is adding chicken sandwiches, wraps, tenders and more. And that will continue: Red Robin Gourmet Burgers will promote a jalapeno-and-salsa-topped 5 Alarm Chicken sandwich later this month, for example. And McDonald’s plans to extend the popular Family Dinner Box takeout program it is testing in Australia to include new Chicken McWings and a new Chicken n Cheese sandwich.

But menu data compiled by researcher Mintel for show that there’s no need for burger lovers to panic or for beef haters to rejoice. Yes, many new chicken items have been added to restaurant menus, but not in overwhelming numbers. In fact, Mintel data finds that the number of new chicken menu items slowed during 2011’s first quarter, at least at quick-service restaurants. A total of 49 new chicken items went on QSR menus in 2011’s Q1, compared with 112 a year ago and 74 in 2010’s Q4. Where chicken the greatest growth is at fast-casual restaurants, such as Smashburger, which greatly expanded its chicken menu recently. Fast casuals added 42 chicken items in 2011’s Q1, compared with just 24 during the year-ago quarter (see table). 

New dishes with chicken as an ingredient accounted for just 17% of all new menu items at QSRs in Q1 2011, compared with 25.5% of all new items in Q1 2010, Mintel data finds. Even at fast-casual restaurants, chicken’s share of all new menu items has remained essentially flat (21.5% in Q1 2011 vs. 21.2% in Q1 2010).

Burgers may seem ubiquitous on American menus, but several years ago chicken sandwiches passed them in sheer number on restaurant menus, and that truth remains intact.

Mintel data finds that the number of burgers on the QSR menus it tracks rose 7.5% from 280 in Q1 2009 to 301 in Q1 2011 (see chart). Sandwiches with chicken as an ingredient (chicken sub, chicken club, chicken panini) showed greater growth: a 9.5% increase from 357 to 391 over that three-year period.  And chicken sandwiches (crispy chicken, grilled chicken, Buffalo chicken, etc.) actually declined 19.6% from 209 on menus in 2009 to 168 in 2011.

So is the chicken onslaught on QSR menus over? Hardly. Although Burger King this week has launched yet another campaign ad campaign touting flame-broiling and customization with commercials labeling the Whopper “America’s Favorite Burger,” more chicken is coming to menus and marketing.

Ξ When Red Robin Gourmet Burgers begins its summer menu promotion on May 31 it won’t spotlight a new burger for the first time in several years. Instead it will promote a 5 Alarm Chicken sandwich (topped with a new fire-roasted salsa, fresh jalapeños, pepper-Jack cheese and chipotle mayo), a chain spokesperson confirms. It will be discounted to $6.99 during the weeks it gets television ad support. Red Robin’s popular unlimited-steak-fries offer will get a new Bottomless Sweet-Potato Fries option as well, according to sources. Also on the menu will be a Summer Strawberry Salad (with sliced strawberries, feta cheese, almonds and strawberry vinaigrette) reduced to $7.99.

McDonald's Family Dinner Box will get a chicken version with McWings in Australia.

In confirming the 5 Alarm Chicken promotion, Red Robin told that, “Since we focused on some of our original burgers in May for Burger Month, we are focusing on a chicken sandwich in June for summertime.”  It makes sense, except that no new burgers have been added by the chain yet this year. The expanded menu it announced last month included new pork riblets and a Grilled Chicken Alla Caprese Salad, but no new burgers.

Ξ In Australia, McDonald’s year-old Dinner Box program that bundles family-size Happy Meals (at right) will get an all-chicken version beginning May 25, according to sources. Available for AUS$ 24.95 (US $26.90) between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m., the Family Chicken Dinner Box for four will include two McChicken sandwiches and two Chicken n Cheese (a new cheese-topped chicken sandwich) plus four of the new Chicken McWings it is bringing out. Also included are two small fries, two medium fries, 10 Chicken McBites (which return to the menu) and four small drinks.

Ξ Finally, the fact that Wendy’s is simultaneously testing both Bistro Cheddar Cheeseburger and Bistro Cheddar Chicken sandwiches in various markets shows that burgers and chicken are destined to peacefully coexist on menus for a long time to come. It will introduce systemwide both the Dave’s Hot ‘n Juicy cheeseburgers and its premium chicken sandwiches later this year.
© 2011

3 Responses to Data Show Burgers, Chicken Battle for Menu Space

  1. Interesting data and trend. While operationally, diversifying the menu can be problematic for operators, this shows the financial importance. Surprising that the pace of chicken additions isn’t higher but perhaps that’s the happy balance being struck.

  2. admin

    Readers who aren’t familiar with Leslie Kerr’s blog on restaurant pricing are advised to remedy that by visiting

  3. John A. Gordon

    Of course, the runup in food commodity prices is playing a big influence, as well.