Twin Citians, the chicken wars are on.
Popeyes fried chicken, which recently took over 12 former KFC outlets in a bankruptcy court battle, plans to establish 18 more stores in the Twin Cities after the initial dozen are converted.
Chick-fil-A, a large chain renowned for its chicken sandwiches, is developing three new restaurants in the Twin Cities to accompany the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport outlet it opened last year. The company says Minneapolis-St. Paul is a growth market.
And all of this chickenicity is going on in the hen house of Buffalo Wild Wings, one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant concepts. The Golden Valley-based chicken specialist already has 23 outlets here and plans more.
“The chicken category is very strong,” said Bob Goldin, executive vice president at restaurant consultant Technomic Inc. “And it’s not just grilled chicken ... It’s not just a health deal.”
In other words, the deep-fried bird is alive and well, even though health perceptions have been a big factor in propelling chicken to the top of the meat heap.
In 1970, consumers gobbled only 26.3 pounds of chicken per capita annually compared with 76.2 pounds of beef, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. In 2010, the last year for which data is available, chicken was the king of meats, with 55.7 pounds per capita consumed, compared to 54.3 pounds for beef.
Perhaps no company better mirrors chicken’s ascent than fast-food behemoth McDonald’s. Started as a burger joint decades ago, it now sells roughly the same amount of chicken as it does beef. McDonald’s current major U.S. product launch is the Premium McWrap, a chicken concoction.
Likewise, Pizza Hut is putting an emphasis on its “WingStreet” concepts, which are co-located with Pizza Huts. Currently, 66 percent of Pizza Huts are joined to a WingStreet; but that number is expected to rise to 75 percent by year’s end, including locally.
In the Twin Cities, Popeyes has been the big chicken story since November, when its Atlanta-based corporate parent snapped up 13 restaurants from a bankrupt KFC franchisee. KFC, which like Pizza Hut is owned by Yum Brands, unsuccessfully fought the $13.8 million deal. Popeyes for years has had just one outpost on Lake Street in Minneapolis.
Now, 12 of the former KFCs will be run by Iftikhar Ali Gilani, a member of the Parikh Network, one of Popeyes’ larger franchisees with about 60 stores in the Northeast. The first KFC-cum-Popeyes opened in Brooklyn Park during early March, and sales so far have been 50 percent higher than expected, Gilani said. His second Popeyes outlet opened Friday at 1938 Beam Av. in Maplewood, across the street from Maplewood Mall.
In the next month, Popeyes are expected to open in Coon Rapids and Crystal. Next up after those are locations in Brooklyn Center and on University Avenue in St. Paul. Gilani said he expects all 12 of the former KFCs to be converted to Popeyes by November.
The franchisee for the Lake Street Popeyes has first rights to convert the former KFC on Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. The location is expected to eventually reopen as a Popeyes.
Gilani said that after the initial 12 Popeyes, he and his franchise group plan to build out six new Popeyes in each of the three following years. The goal: 30 restaurants.
“There is a huge demand for Popeyes recipe,” Gilani said referring to the chicken’s spicy Cajun pedigree.
Popeyes’ archrival, KFC, has more than 40 stores in the Twin Cities. “KFC maintains the largest chicken restaurant presence in the market,” KFC spokesman Rick Maynard said in an e-mail. It’s “committed to an even stronger presence in the future,” but Maynard declined to give details.
Meanwhile, Chick-fil-A is developing restaurants in Coon Rapids, Maple Grove and Bloomington. The company has already gone through much of the requisite municipal permitting in each city, though construction hasn’t begun.
“This year, we are hoping to build out several locations in [the Minneapolis area],” said Brenda Morrow, a spokeswoman for Chick-fil-A. “I can confirm it is a growth market for us.”
Chick-fil-A is one of the hottest and largest U.S. chicken concepts with $4.6 billion in sales and a 14.1 percent growth rate last year, according to Technomic. “Chick-fil-A is a winner anyway you cut it,” said Technomic’s Goldin. “It has a focused menu and it’s high quality.”
In recent years, the company has been expanding beyond its base in the South, including to Chicago, Kansas City, Phoenix and Southern California.
KFC is the nation’s chicken chain leader with $4.7 billion in U.S. sales last year, up 1.3 percent from 2011, according to Technomic. Popeyes had sales of $2 billion, but they were up 14.4 percent. “Popeyes has done well,” Goldin said.
The chicken wing category has been the hottest. Buffalo Wild Wings had $2.5 billion in 2012 sales including its franchised restaurants — up 21 percent, according to Technomic.
Another restaurant concept that relies heavily on wings, Hurricane Grill, has opened stores in Minnetonka and Burnsville over the past eight months. The franchisee of those restaurants, Willmar, Minn.-based Torgerson Properties, has a development agreement to open 18 Hurricane Grills over five years.
Even the chicken-to-go counter is booming at Cub Foods, the Twin Cities’ largest supermarket chain. Chicken is Cub’s leading deli-prepared hot food. And 2013 sales are up 30 percent over a year ago.
“It’s amazing the amount of chicken we are putting out in every location,” said Cub Foods President Brian Audette.