The One Item McDonald's Employees Are Begging For

When you think of McDonald's, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the chain's perfectly salty, slightly beefy french fries? Is it the iconic Big Mac with its Special Sauce and middle bun? Or is it a simple but classic Quarter Pounder with Cheese? Maybe your mind strays to McNuggets... maybe. But chicken anything probably isn't top of mind when it comes to Mickey D's. 

Now Chick-fil-A, on the other hand, is synonymous with chicken (although, somewhat surprisingly, it is actually Chick-fil-A's waffle fries that are the most-ordered item on the menu). But "chicken sandwich" is the obvious answer in the CFA word association game, and it's that classic Southern-style chicken sandwich that's missing from the McDonald's menu. That's according to franchisees, anyway, who say, "A Chicken Sandwich at McDonald's should be our top priority. JFK called for a man on the moon, our call should be a category leading chicken sandwich." 

Perhaps likening the need for a chicken sandwich to the moon landing is just a bit hyperbolic, but in a July 2019 email to franchise owners obtained by CNBC, the National Owners Association (NOA) board (formed by McDonald's franchisees) explained why the missing menu item is a real problem. "A favorite, that our customers want, is a chicken sandwich. Unfortunately, they have to go to Chick-fil-A for it. Chick-fil-A's results demonstrate the power of chicken," the email reads. "Yes, we have great Chicken McNuggets and our McChicken is a very good product. But we do not compete in the premium chicken sandwich category, either grilled or crispy. Our US Southeast markets' results should concern everyone. You may not have Chick-fil-As in your market or to the degree they have them in the southeast, but they are coming. And they don't discount." 

The NOA goes on to describe how the chain can get to where they want to be in the chicken sandwich game, saying that their previously offered Southern Style Chicken Sandwich — which was meant to be a Chick-fil-A competitor — was close, but not quite perfect. "We don't have to reinvent the wheel. We didn't invent the drive thru, we perfected it. Chick-fil-A invented the Chicken Sandwich, but we can do one better," the email continues. "Our Southern Style Chicken sandwich was very close to category leading. It needs some tweaks. We need to serve it in a foil bag and we need to butter the bun, but the patty recipe was excellent."

They're not wrong. A side-by-side comparison of Chick-fil-A's Chicken Sandwich and McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich by Serious Eats in 2008 concluded, "Honestly, this sandwich from McDonald's was a pretty accurate recreation of the Chick-fil-A sandwich... If you don't have a Chick-fil-A near you [...] you're not going to do too bad by grabbing the Faux-fil-A from Mickey D's." The Serious Eats review did note the lack of butter on the bun, and also the size difference between the chicken breasts, which, although not mentioned in the NOA email, might be something McDonald's test kitchen cooks want to consider if they plan on competing with CFA's mega filets in the future.

You might not think that McDonald's could possibly be threatened by little ol' Chick-fil-A — after all, the Golden Arches runs something to the tune of 14,000 U.S. locations compared to CFA's roughly 2,000. But even with fewer locations, and even though the chain is famously closed one day a week, according to Nation's Restaurant News, Chick-fil-A is the nation's third-largest restaurant chain by sales in 2019, beating out fast food powerhouses Taco Bell, Wendy's, and Burger King, and trailing only Starbucks, who holds the number two spot, and, you guessed it, McDonald's at number one. While there is a vast difference in total sales — $38.52 billion for McDonald's compared to Chick-fil-A's $10.46 billion — that meteoric rise of the chicken-centric chain obviously has Mickey D's owners thinking outside the burger box. 

But there's one thing, the masses say, that McDonald's needs to serve up if they want to compete with Chick-fil-A, and it has nothing to do with chicken. At McDonald's, rather than "Do you want fries with that?" customers say they should be leaning towards the genial "My pleasure" offered by CFA employees. That's because, according to the 2018-2019 American Customer Satisfaction Index (via CNBC), Chick-fil-A landed in the top spot amongst fast food restaurants, while McDonald's languished at the bottom. And if social media's reaction is any indication, all the Southern-style chicken sandwiches in the world won't help McDonald's. As one Twitter user pointed out: "It's more than just the chicken sandwich that draws people to Chick. It's the customer service, the politeness, having intelligent young people taking your order. It's the whole experience... not just the chicken." Perhaps the McDonald's owners need to get on that, too.