We had the cola wars. We had the burger wars.

But the chicken wars between McDonald's, Popeyes, and Chick-fil-A have just begun.

It's likely to be fierce. And, it all comes at an interesting time for McDonald's, since its CEO ascended to the top position at the fast food giant unexpectedly, just a month ago.

Here's your quick, partial, recent chronology:

  • February 2018: McDonald's reveals a secret new strategy: more chicken. The plan's code name, according to a report by Bloomberg News, is simply Better Chicken, and its goal, articulated in corporate speak, is to become a "credible chicken player."
  • July 2019: McDonald's franchisees grow impatient. They say they badly need a really good fried chicken sandwich on their menu, and they need it now: "A favorite that our customers want is a chicken sandwich," they write. "Unfortunately, they have to go to Chick-fil-A for it."
  • August 2019: Another, smaller fast food chain emerges as a giant threat: Popeyes. The entire country goes crazy over its new fried chicken sandwich. Stores that expected to sell 60 sandwiches a day sell 1,000. The chain sells out in just two weeks, and it isn't able to get back into the game until the following month.

Then comes the curveball nobody expected.

In November, McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook stepped down from his post, after he "demonstrated poor judgment involving a recent consensual relationship with an employee," according to the company. He's replaced by Chris Kempczinski.

Barely a month after that, McDonald's has finally dipped a toe into the chicken business.

As of this week, the company now is testing two new sandwiches, the Crispy Chicken Sandwich and the Deluxe Crispy Chicken Sandwich, at restaurants in Tennessee and Texas.

The expectation among analysts and observers is that McDonald's will likely roll them out across the country next year.

The chicken effect

Confession time: I almost never eat at McDonald's, Chick-fil-A, or most fast food restaurants. I don't think I've ever set foot in a Popeyes. Maybe to use the bathroom?

Still, I follow this industry because the numbers are truly staggering, and the degree to which making small changes can have a big ripple effect is amazing. 

That means that a small menu change at a chain like McDonald's can have a big economic impact. McDonald's reportedly sells 550 million Big Macs per year in the U.S. That works out to 20 every second.

Nothing happens that often without touching other things.Take the interplay between President Trump's trade war with China (pork is a casualty), and the degree to which fast food chains started pushing bacon on their menus earlier this year.

It makes this fixation on chicken even easier to understand if you consider two key statistics:

  1. Americans now eat about 35 pounds more chicken each year than they do beef. (That's per person.)
  2. While McDonald's is the biggest fast food chain, its sales on a per-store basis are dwarfed by Chick-fil-A's. (It beats sales at Popeyes, although the latest data I have on this is from 2016, which was, of course, before the new chicken sandwich).

But how does it taste?

The financials are fascinating. But at the end of the day, two things matter when you're selling food: How does it taste, and can you create a demand frenzy?

I haven't tried the McDonald's Crispy Chicken Sandwich myself (see above). But, at least one analyst who tried the sandwiches in Tennessee and covers the chain is bullish. It "tastes really good" the analyst reported this week.

Given the scale and scope of introducing a new menu item at McDonald's, it's clear this was in the works prior to Kempczinski's taking over.

But Kempczinski was the head of McDonald's for the United States market before this, so it's something he would have likely been deeply involved in.

It's only a chicken sandwich, I want to say. But, who knew a chicken sandwich could have so many repercussions?