The first Popeyes tweet seemed innocent enough — a photograph of the chain’s new fried-chicken sandwich (chicken breast, brioche bun, pickles, sauce) beneath an artfully garbled caption: “So. Good. Forgot. How. Speak.”
But as a social media battle has captivated the internet this week and generated long lines at Popeyes locations across the country, that tweet from last week now has the feel of an opening salvo. Things grew heated Tuesday, when Chick-fil-A tweeted what appeared to be a coded response to the Popeyes announcement, extolling the virtues of its “original” chicken sandwich.
Popeyes replied a few hours later: “...ya’ll good?”
Soon, the “passive-aggressive chicken sandwich debate,” as one news article put it, had escalated into a Twitter battle royale, as other fast-food companies started promoting their own sandwiches. Shake Shack tried to rise above the fray, promising a chicken sandwich “without the beef.”
As the Twitter commotion intensified, the Popeyes chicken sandwich reportedly sold out at some locations.
“Look at how much attention they’re getting — it’s impressive,” said Jonathan Maze, the executive editor of Restaurant Business Magazine, a trade publication. “All this is really going to do, frankly, is embolden other chains to do similar things when they introduce new products.”
In the chicken wars this week, fast-food rivals seemed intent on stirring up trouble. Take this exchange between Wendy’s and Popeyes:
Wendy’s: “Y’all out here fighting about which of these fools has the second best chicken sandwich.”
Popeyes: “Sounds like someone just ate one of our biscuits. Cause y’all looking thirsty.”
Wendy’s: “lol, guess that means the food’s as dry as the jokes.”
To some, these Twitter antics may seem juvenile. But many brands have discovered that one easy way to cut through the social media noise is to poke fun at the competition. In fast food, Wendy’s has arguably the sassiest corporate Twitter account in the country. Now, Popeyes is starting to catch up.
“If you’re a fast-food brand,” Maze said, “you have to have a strong social media game.”
In a statement, Felipe Athayde, the Popeyes president for the Americas, declined to reveal how many chicken sandwiches the chain has sold. But he said the response from customers had been “extraordinary.”
“We noticed a lot of organic conversation about the sandwich and we decided to have a little bit of fun along with our guests,” he said. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm for our brand.”
Chick-fil-A did not respond to requests for comment.
Fast-food companies are not the only major brands eager to kick up some dust. After the snack-bar company Clif took out an advertisement in The New York Times in March calling on its competitors to use organic ingredients, its main rival, Kind, responded with a television commercial. There was also a lengthy back-and-forth on Facebook.
Asked in a recent interview whether he regretted the social media spat, the Kind chief executive, Daniel Lubetzky, struck a defiant tone. “We are not going to not defend our baby and our honor,” he said. “They picked the wrong fight.”
When it comes to chicken sandwiches, the battle has political overtones. Some critics of Chick-fil-A are hailing the Popeyes sandwich as a socially responsible alternative. Since 2012, Chick-fil-A has been widely criticized for its chief executive’s derogatory comments about same-sex marriage. But Maze said he doubted the Popeyes sandwich, however aggressively marketed, would pose much of a threat to Chick-fil-A, whose sales grew by 16.7% last year, making it the third-largest restaurant chain in the United States.
“The chicken sandwich is their base, it’s what they’ve done forever and it’s a very good product,” he said. “I can’t imagine Chick-fil-A’s customers are suddenly going to abandon the chain and go to Popeyes. They’ve been kind of unstoppable for a long time.”
Still, at the Popeyes on 40th Street in Manhattan, a line stretched down the block as die-hard fans and curious first-timers waited to sample the sandwich. Kurwyne Gayle was in line for his fifth sandwich in a week.
“I had it on Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Gayle said as he chatted with a group of friends outside. “It’s really good. That’s why I’m here standing in line.”