As November settles in and we start to compile the biggest industry stories of the year, 2011 looks like it could easily be crowned "Year of the Burger."
In a quick-service segment that was founded on the core menu item (along with fries and shakes), it's fun to see a continued evolution. Everywhere you go there is a new, improved hamburger – McDonald's Angus, Wendy's Dave's Hot 'N Juicy, Burger King's Chef's Choice, Carl's Jr./Hardee's Steakhouses, etc.
Smartly, the QSR players are building "better burgers" to better compete with the hot fast casual segment that boasts big success stories such as Five Guys and Smashburger.
But are we barreling toward burger fatigue?
At least one report seems to point in this direction. According to a social media analytics report from Amplicate, burger chains experienced a slip in popularity on social media sites throughout the past 12 months. While chains such as Subway and Popeyes garnered favorable responses, Burger King was the "most hated" QSR chain, and social media users were only able to muster tepid enthusiasm for burger giants McDonald's and Wendy's.
The report claimed the respondents were in search for "healthier" fast food. This could explain the emergence of chicken innovations and rollouts (This and the fact that chicken prices haven't spiked nearly as much as beef prices).
Of course, burgers will never go anywhere in the QSR segment. But the crystal ball seems to be showing a strong focus on chicken in the coming year. Some items have already been introduced and there are plenty more in the pipeline.
The spotlight began to shift when Burger King Corp. revamped its chicken tenders in March, featuring an all new seasoning and shape. The tenders, which used to be crown-shaped, now resemble chicken nuggets in an attempt to appeal to both adults and kids.
Popeyes has taken advantage of chicken's versatility, rolling out chicken that ripped and dipped this year. Who knows what they'll come up with next?
Church's Chicken innovated this year with a new Southern Style Chicken Sandwich. It will be interesting to see what Jim Hyatt, the chain's new CEO, has in store for the coming year to keep the momentum going.
Subway introduced a new Oven Crisp Chicken sub in August that "offers the same crispy flavor with significantly less fat" as a fried chicken sandwich. Spokesperson Les Winograd said the item has been very popular and he wouldn't be surprised if the limited-time offer "sticks around."
Culver's debuted a new antibiotic-free chicken systemwide. The premium, natural-cut chicken breasts are now available on the classic grilled and crispy chicken sandwiches, with the chicken tenders and buffalo chicken tenders, and as part of the Scoopie Kids Meals.
In its recent earnings call, CEO Andrew Puzdler said CKE Restaurants' chains, Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, have been promoting chicken products as they aren't as affected by rising commodity process like beef.
Chick-fil-A, the Zagat favorite grilled chicken chain, has added some heat to its lineup, with a spicy chicken sandwich, spicy chicken biscuit and spicy nuggets.
And talk about championining chicken, KFC named its very first chief chicken officer this year.
This is just the preamble. Wendy's has previewed a "Gold Chicken Line" in earnings reports, which is expected to launch in early 2012. The chain is currently testing a Bruschetta Chicken Sandwich with diced tomatoes and a balsamic glaze.
Captain D's is even jumping on board. CEO Phil Greifeld said the seafood chain will reach beyond its signatures in the coming year, with a more robust menu that could position Captain D's as a formidable chicken player.
And, the gazillion eyes typically focused on what McDonald's is doing will see a clear focus on chicken. The QSR giant's Chicken McBites are currently in test in Detroit and represent "a strategy toward becoming a credible destination for chicken."
The efforts are a win/win for operators seeking more versatile menu offerings at more reasonable costs, and customers seeking healthier snacking options and more choices. Of course, only time will tell if 2012 will truly be the Year of the Chicken.
Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.