06/20/2024

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Starbucks is throwing its hat into the chicken sandwich wars. This week, the Seattle-based company introduced a chicken sandwich with maple butter and egg on an oatmeal cookie, but availability is currently limited. What does it taste like? I bought one in Brooklyn, and the short answer: bland.

With an egg patty on top, the Starbucks sandwich is aimed at the breakfast crowd. I reserved mine for $5.65 on Thursday morning and found it waiting at the counter when I arrived at Starbucks. My first thought was that the sandwich looked …… beige. There was no pickle layer like Chick-Fil-A or spicy mayo like Popeyes. A Starbucks sandwich is a piece of chicken wrapped in breadcrumbs on a scrambled egg, a parent-child combo that is definitely salty, but a little tough to eat.

I’ve never seen a deep fryer at Starbucks, so I wasn’t shocked to find that the chicken on this sandwich didn’t have that fresh out of the oil crunch you can find elsewhere. That said, texture aside, we were left with a very bland and uninspiring sandwich whose main flavor came from the artificially tasted maple butter sauce. This meant that the Starbucks chicken sandwich tasted sweeter and emptier than anything else. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely needed something extra, like acidity, creamy condiments or any other flavor to break up the battered monotony.

It probably doesn’t matter how good it tastes, though. Justin McElroy, co-host of the podcast “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” who has been eating and reporting on the new chicken sandwiches on his show for years, says taste isn’t the main reason for these new products – the hype It is.

While it may seem odd for Starbucks to dip its toe into the crowded chicken sandwich space, the unexpected entry into the market has actually been happening for some time. The 2019 Popeyes fried chicken sandwich fired a shot in the Chick-fil-A-dominated space, and from there, the competition for new flavors of food went into overdrive. Competitors such as KFC, already known for its fried chicken, reinvigorated their offerings, while powerful brands looked to poultry: McDonald’s, Burger King and even Arby’s followed suit to sample the success of viral chicken.

You see all these headlines about people waiting hours to get a Popeye’s chicken sandwich,” McElroy says, “and he thinks it kicked off a hype train that brands like Starbucks have continued to this day.

Standing out in the world of crispy chicken sandwiches isn’t easy, in part because most of them follow a similar recipe: a piece of crispy fried chicken with a layer of pickles, mayonnaise (usually available plain or spicy) , and a soft bun to hold them together.

This means that chicken sandwiches compete almost entirely through the slightest of differences. Popeyes’ sandwiches are known for their crunchy texture, KFC for its signature blend of herbs and spices, and Chick-Fil-A’s sandwiches are somehow both sandwiches and homophobic. Starbucks’ entry target is breakfast, similar to Wendy’s breakfast chicken cookies (now offering hot honey) and McDonald’s chicken bacon option, both of which prove you don’t need eggs to make a breakfast sandwich.

But if taste is the main reason for the new chicken sandwich, then Starbucks’ new offering doesn’t hold up. Like me, McElroy was not impressed with the product. It’s “offensive,” in his words, and in the battle over the chicken sandwich, “Starbucks is like a baby tickling itself with a razor,” he says. “They’re wandering into a pre-existing conflict with no care, no forethought, no knowledge.”

While sandwiches don’t have the same explosive impact on Twitter as past entries into the chicken sandwich canon, they generate enough chatter in small amounts to make sandwiches hard to find. In researching this story, I found that after the morning Frappuccino craze, there were only a handful of places in all of New York that stocked sandwiches.

McElroy says fast-food restaurants make chicken sandwiches in part because of their modal value, hoping to profit from the online conversation. “The last five, six, seven years of fast-food marketing can only be understood through the lens of social media,” he says. “It’s not so much about taste as it is about what people are talking about online.”

It was at this point in the interview that I paused. As another journalist writing about another fast-food chicken sandwich, was I falling into a trap set by an unnamed company creating more and more hype for more and more obscure poultry? Maybe there’s no way to talk about the chicken sandwich war – which takes human lives – without adding fuel to the fire.

I asked McElroy why he was doing this, and he assured me. “Putting your fingers in your ears won’t make the chicken sandwich wars go away,” he said. “If anything, it will immortalize them, because where are the people calling for an end to the violence?” The hype train doesn’t belong to me. It doesn’t belong to McElroy either. It belongs to the brand, it belongs to Ms. Popeye, it belongs to Colonel Sanders and now it belongs to Starbucks. We’re just passing through.

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