What’s Slaying the All-American Burger?

After 5 years of steady growth, chicken comes home to roost

Could the hamburger, the long-reigning, all-American favorite, finally be toast?

Beef burgers made their name as a workingman’s meal during the Great Depression—before evolving into the symbol of American corporatism and cultural hegemony that they have become. The Economist, singing the praises of the burger, once called it “a symbol of the reassuring predictability, the pre-packaged straightforwardness, the sheer lack of pretension of American life.”

But move over, burger—chicken is having a moment.

For the first time in a century, Americans are gobbling up more of the humble bird—much of it in the form of fried chicken drumsticks, crispy chicken sandwiches and chicken nuggets—than double cheeseburgers, sliders and T-bones. Chicken consumption, after growing steadily over the last five years, last year finally paced ahead of beef, according to the USDA. This, as a four-year drought in Texas, which produces the bulk of our beef, has forced prices skyward and triggered a beef shortage. On the flip side, there is such tremendous demand for chicken that this is shaping up to be the most profitable year ever for chicken producers, as Bloomberg reports, with a surge in wholesale prices boosting profits for giants like Arkansas-based Tyson Foods.

It’s little wonder, then, that fast-food chains like Burger King are jumping into poultry in a big way, even as a couple of heavy hitters already well-known for their bird—Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen and Chick-fil-A—are enjoying a growth spurt. “As we see a systemic decline in beef consumption, relatively inexpensive and easily available chicken is turning into the universal protein,” notes John Gordon, analyst and principal at Pacific Management Consulting Group.

Just how hot is chicken? Last year, U.S. sales at limited-service chicken chains shot up 4 percent, while comparable burger chains saw less than half that growth, with a 1.5 percent bump, per Technomic. Particularly revealing, Chick-fil-A became the No. 1 fast-food outlet in the U.S. in per store sales as of 2012, tallying $3.1 million per location, versus $2.6 million for McDonald’s and $1.2 million for Burger King. Even Domino’s—in the process of phasing “pizza” out of its name—has caught chicken fever, launching its Specialty Chicken line in April with a national TV campaign from lead creative agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The new menu offering consists of a dozen chunks of breaded chicken breast covered with sauce, cheese and assorted pizza toppings. “This is a one-of-a-kind product that reinvents the way chicken is served in our industry,” boasts Russell Weiner, Domino’s CMO. “Our pizza expertise inspires items like this outside of the traditional pizza category.”

TV spots promoting Domino’s concoction focus on how the company isn’t afraid to take risks and, in keeping with its recent marketing messaging, how it sometimes fails. “We are proud to be known as a pizza company, but Specialty Chicken shows we are not afraid to step out of our comfort zone,” says Weiner. “We encourage our team members to keep trying to get better. Failure sometimes shows itself on the road to success.”

Burger King, stinging from a 1 percent dip in U.S. sales in 2013, recently debuted its Chicken Big King sandwich and dusted off its legendary “Subservient Chicken” campaign, created by Crispin and The Barbarian Group a decade ago. It relaunched the website subservientchicken.com, which made advertising history by putting an actor in a chicken suit who seemingly performed stunts on command. (In reality, numerous possible reactions were filmed.) This time around, the site sports a video about the fabled “chicken man,” claiming he’s gone MIA. As part of the campaign, the fugitive chicken shows up in unexpected places, prompting Twitter sightings.

The South Rises