America is Running Out of Chickens to Fry

Image Credit: iStock, Sonja Filits

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From the late, great Anthony Bourdain to New American cuisine master David Chang to molecular gastronomist wunderkind Wylie Dufresne, America’s best chefs have always pledged their unyielding love for one thing: fried chicken.

Most Americans feel the same way, too. But now, the popularity of that delicious, golden fried treat has led to a dangerous inflection point: America is struggling to produce enough chicken to eat.

It All Started With a Sandwich

The current craze for fried chicken began in 2019 when Popeye’s — a favorite of Bourdain, Dufresne, and fellow celebrity chef Hugh Acheson — launched a fried chicken sandwich that became a viral sensation and repeatedly sold out.

Its success prompted almost every fast food rival — including McDonald’s, KFC, Chick-Fil-A, and Wendy’s — to roll out a new sandwich of their own in the past two years.

  • This week, KFC reported that its comparable-store sales skyrocketed 14% in the most recent quarter in the U.S., with its new fried chicken sandwich selling twice as much as previous new sandwiches.
  • KFC said it’s struggling to keep up with demand for the sandwich, and other fast food companies are feeling the heat, too: North Carolina chicken-and biscuits chain Bojangles suffered outages of tenders across its 750 locations this week.

“Demand for the new sandwich has been so strong that, coupled with general tightening in domestic chicken supply, our main challenge has been keeping up with that demand,” said David Gibbs, CEO of KFC parent Yum conference call.

What’s the Hold-up? Producers have been struggling to keep up with the demand for a simple reason: labor, or lack thereof. Poultry companies have been struggling to keep up with demand from quick-service restaurants. On Thursday, America’s second-biggest chicken producer Pilgrim’s Pride said it expects to pay $40 million extra this year to pay and retain workers.

Millennial Solution: Millennials, accused of disrupting everything at one time or another, may have already made their move here. Hal Lawton, the CEO of livestock and farming company Tractor Supply, said the millennial fraction of its customer base grew by four per cent in the latest quarter, in a sign that more younger adults are “buying coops, buying birds, and buying everything that goes along necessary for that passion.”