With much of the fast-food industry embracing fried chicken despite health concerns about the greasy fare, Taco Bell is making its own foray into the category.
The Mexican-themed chain will begin serving a new chalupa this month with a shell made out of fried chicken, rather than corn or flour. The item is an attempt to capitalize on record-high demand for chicken while still appealing to its customers’ desire for over-the-top food combinations. The division of Yum! Brands Inc. has been experimenting for years to find a fried-chicken item it could add to its menu.
“Fried chicken is growing at a tremendous clip,” Taco Bell President Brian Niccol said in an interview. “It’s a real void on our menu, and it’s something that our customers ask us for.”
Americans are expected to eat about 91.7 pounds of chicken per person this year, the most on record, according to the National Chicken Council. That dwarfs demand for beef and pork. And at quick-service restaurant chains, much of it is being served up fried.
Shake Shack Inc., better known for burgers and milkshakes, rolled out a fried chicken sandwich nationally last year. It has already become one of its top sellers, and the company is adding a barbecue version.
Habit Restaurant Inc., another burger chain, also began selling a Southern-style chicken sandwich last year. Customer response has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Chief Executive Officer Russell William Bendel said on a conference call in November.
Fast-food chains are having to fight harder to get customers in the door, increasing pressure to add the most in-demand menu items. Industrywide same-store sales -- a key measure of health -- grew less than 1 percent for the past eight months through November, according to MillerPulse data.
Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken helped to popularize the southern specialty when he first began cooking for hungry travelers at a gas station in 1930. KFC, also owned by Yum, said same-store sales jumped 6 percent in its most recent quarter domestically. The chain’s Extra Crispy ad campaign helped pull in diners.
Fried poultry is showing up at fancier places too. David Chang, head of the Momofuku Milk Bar empire, is known for his $8 spicy fried chicken sandwiches at Fuku in New York. This year, he’s opening another Fuku location on Wall Street.
Taco Bell’s offering will be cheaper, at $2.99. The item, called the Naked Chicken Chalupa, will debut on Jan. 26 and may be added to the menu permanently if it does well, Niccol said.
“The thing about chicken is, it can take on a lot of different flavors,” he said. “It hits the right chord of being known, but yet different.”