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Here's Why Chicken Franchises Are Booming

Entrepreneur's Franchise 500 ranking tracks the hottest food categories, and we've seen chicken surging for years. Here's why.

This story appears in the June 2022 issue of Start Up.

If you look at how burger franchises developed, there were two big waves. First was the McDonald's and wave, with a model that helped parents get burgers with their kids at an affordable price. Then came the gourmet burger wave, with brands such as Five Guys and Burger 21 adding toppings like garlic aioli and cilantro cream.

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Experts say that same business pattern is now repeating with . Whereas brands such as KFC, Popeyes, and Church's Chicken are long-established and beloved, a new wave of franchises like Pollo Campero, El Pollo Loco, and the Shaquille O'Neal–backed Big Chicken are offering sandwiches with smashed avocado and low-calorie, fire-grilled chicken breast dinners.

"We call it the better chicken category," says Sam Rothschild, chief operating officer at Slim Chickens, a 19-year-old company that has 165-plus locations in the U.S. and the U.K., with more than 800 restaurants under signed commitments. "We offer a different lineup of products that are of better quality than those of the people who have been around a long time."

Christina Coy, vice president of marketing at the Korean fried-chicken franchise Bonchon, says consumers' evolving paletttes are also driving growth. "People's taste buds are changing," she says. "They're more willing to try new flavors. That's why more consumers are getting excited about fried chicken. It's Korean fried chicken or Nashville hot fried chicken. There's just so many different ways now to have fried chicken."

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Bonchon has been in the U.S. since 2006. It now has more than 380 locations worldwide, with 115 in . Same-store sales were up 17.5% in 2021 versus 2019. That kind of success is luring even more competitors, Coy says. "We're definitely starting to see more companies, and especially ones coming over from Korea and other Asian companies that do fried chicken," she says. "They're mainly hitting the East and West coasts."

Those new franchises are going to keep coming, according to , CEO of iFranchise Group, a franchise development and consulting firm. There's widespread consumer demand for the product right now, along with advantages in leasing space.

"When you have a restaurant in a prime location that did not survive COVID, suddenly the landlords have to make good deals for restaurateurs in prime locations," he says. "Not only are franchisees looking at these, but the multifranchise operators are jumping on them."

Henry Lee is one such franchisee who spotted opportunity. After working for Microsoft and PricewaterhouseCoopers, he opened his first Bonchon in 2018 in Denver. His second opened in Aurora in 2020, and he is now opening two more in Colorado, with one of them slated to open in late May.

Related: 5 Things You Need to Know Before Investing in a Chick-fil-A Franchise

"There's American fried chicken, and then there's Korean fried chicken. There's a huge distinction," he says. "In my opinion, Korean fried chicken is going to take over the scene. The texture is a light kind of crispy, and the flavors are very unique."

Lee says he loves the interactions he has with customers, especially when they try Korean fried chicken for the first time. "They usually come back the next week. Sometimes it's the next day," he says. "It's an extremely addictive product. And I know the feeling. I have a few wings with the soy-garlic sauce to get my fix on."

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