McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) is finally ready to do battle in the Chicken Sandwich Wars. Well, sort of. The burger chain recently teased on social media that it would be testing a new spicy chicken sandwich in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Houston through January. Presumably, the chain would roll it out nationally afterward if successful.

While McDonald's franchisees have been clamoring for a chicken sandwich that could compete against Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and Wendy's (they even threatened to develop their own because of apparent inaction by the restaurant's headquarters), coming up with one at such a late hour means it will be almost as bad as if the chain never introduced one.

Woman holding a crispy fried chicken sandwich

Image source: Getty Images.

A reason to crow

Chick-fil-A has long ruled the roost when it comes to chicken sandwiches, but Restaurant Brands International (NYSE:QSR) ruffled a lot of feathers in the category when its Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen chain introduced a Southern-style chicken sandwich this past summer.

Whether it was a manufactured phenomenon or one that really did develop organically on social media, the sandwich that had quietly gone unnoticed for several weeks when it was first made available suddenly blew up, and customers couldn't get enough of it. People lined up out the door and around the block to buy one, causing Popeyes to quickly run out of the sandwich.

Maybe it hit the market at just the right time. Chicken's popularity has been rising for decades as beef has declined. The National Chicken Council says per capita consumption is expected to be nearly double that of beef this year, 95 pounds versus 57 pounds. In 1992, chicken and beef were about even at 66 pounds per capita.

Birds of a feather

Chick-fil-A has capitalized on chicken's popularity, using it to become the third largest restaurant chain in the country, ahead of Yum! Brands' Taco Bell, Burger King, and Wendy's, and second only to McDonald's and Starbucks.

Popeyes wants to give Chick-fil-A a run for its money, though. After nearly a half-century in business, this is the first time the chain is really culturally relevant, and the return of its chicken sandwich last month caused a similarly overzealous consumer response. This time, however, the fried chicken chain has enough sandwiches to meet demand.

Which is why McDonald's late entry to the fray is superfluous to it being competitive. Beyond Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, and Wendy's, there are numerous other quality chicken sandwiches on the market. Yum's KFC, Restaurant Brands' Burger King chain, and even Shake Shack have their own version.

Heck, even McDonald's has a chicken sandwich on its menu already -- three, actually -- though franchisees dismiss them as not being sufficient to take on the other national brands.

Late is worse than never

Another sandwich, even if it is a Southern-style spicy variety, is simply a me-too product at this point. It's unlikely to create the sort of buzz Popeyes was able to achieve, and it's probably not going to displace any of the chains already offering one. 

McDonald's should have had a top-notch sandwich on its menu long before now, and it should have responded sooner to what was clear for everyone to see: Chicken was stealing the limelight. And it's still going to be at least another month before the burger shop has its sandwich ready to go anyway.

It undoubtedly can't hurt that McDonald's joins the flock, but big sales will still be as rare as hen's teeth for this chicken sandwich.

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