The summer of 2019 brought the great chicken wars. Popeyes changed the game when they released their sandwich to the masses, giving rise to The Purge levels of chaos and endless opinions about what makes a great fried chicken sandwich. Over the next few weeks, that conversation widened beyond just sauce, spiciness, and bun quality. Voices started to rise to fore questioning what cheap, fast food sandwiches mean to the bigger picture in our capitalistic food culture.
The fast-food economy is based on cowboy capitalism that’s short-sighted at best and, at worst, part of advancing the climate crisis. So while Popeyes’ new chicken sandwich is the current gold standard by which fast-food or fast-casual chicken sandwiches should be measured by taste-wise, its sourcing methods also deserve our attention. Because a truly great chicken sandwich should be great all the way down the line, from the farm its raised in, to the working conditions of the factories it’s processed in, to the fair treatment and pay of the workers that serve it.
According to Popeyes’ Animal Welfare Statement, the company “is not directly involved in the raising, transportation, or processing of chickens,” though they claim to be “committed to the humane treatment” of the chickens they’re provided from their various suppliers, none of which are listed on their website. And while this statement sounds high-minded at times (“The Company will continue to monitor emerging technologies related to improving animal welfare and product quality…”), it’s mostly bare-minimum boilerplate stuff.
Looking it over was enough to motivate us to find two companies doing better (which wasn’t quite as easy as we’d expected) to give their sandwiches a try. We hoped to champion a new entrant in the Chicken Wars. One with cleaner (or at least more transparent) sourcing that also tasted great. At the very least, one that wasn’t fully sold out nationwide. Read on as Dane Rivera and I pit Shack Shack and Crack Shack against one another in our latest food face-off.
Our first entrant was the international brand out of New York, Shake Shack. The Chick’n Shack claims to be “100% all-natural cage-free chicken, served on a non-GMO Martin’s Potato Roll. No hormones and no antibiotics ever.” That feels like a step up from Popeyes, but not a huge one. Their own “transparency statement” is still vague and… not at all transparent. They claim to be committed to sustainable sourcing, but what that means is unclear. Still, cage-free and hormone and antibiotic-free was enough for us to go on. Barely.
The next entrant was from the rapidly expanding fast-casual chain out of California, The Crack Shack. Their chicken is sourced from a real free-range farm, Jidori, that sustainably and ethically raises chickens for a large, West Coast market. Jidori’s credentials are some of the best in the farming world when it comes to cruelty-free, all-natural chicken farming. And the fact that Crack Shack names their supplier is, perhaps, the very best sign.
Crack Shack doesn’t use Jidori’s organic chickens, but the standards of their standard free-range chickens offer a massive step up from factory farming.
CHICK’N SHACK, SHAKE SHACK
Number of Stores: 200, worldwide
Price of a Chicken Sandwich: $6.99 (plus tax)
There’s a minor hiccup here. No matter how much we raced between locations, LA traffic is what it is and we tasted this sandwich about one-hour after I bought it. Also worth noting, when we set it side-by-side with The Crack Shack chicken sandwich, there was a pretty noticeable size difference (which helps to justify the cost difference).