Peppery sandwich gets shelved; demand for bolder tastes put in doubt
CHICAGO -- In a sign that the country's tastes may not be as adventurous as McDonald's believed, the fast-food giant said Tuesday it is pulling the Hot 'n' Spicy McChicken sandwich from the menu board.
Oak Brook-based McDonald's Corp. introduced the sandwich with great fanfare in January as part of the largest menu expansion in decades. At the time, the hamburger giant's move to add the peppery sandwich was seen as an indication that American palates were growing to regularly include more intense flavors found in Mexican, Thai and other ethnic foods.
But, apparently, we're not there yet.
After six months of soft sales, McDonald's appears to have misread the market for the sandwich. A spokeswoman for the company confirmed Tuesday that the spicy chicken sandwich "has been discontinued."
The spicy chicken sandwich was seen to be part of the restaurant industry push to offer items that excited its customers.
Across the country, restaurant menus are getting more bold flavors--such as a spicy pulled pork sandwich from Tyson; drinks from the Coca-Cola Co. like Pomegranate Punch, a blend of Bacardi rum with pomegranate juice, Sprite and lemonade; and fusions of flavors such as a peach blackberry streusel pie from Sara Lee Corp.
In part, it is due to the wave of Hispanic immigration that hit the nation in the 1990s. But it is also due to a growing number of Baby Boomers demanding stronger flavors to compensate for the loss of some taste buds during the aging process. One measure of the trend is the increase in the production of chili peppers, which has risen from 2.8 million pounds in 2001 to 5.2 million pounds in 2005.
"Spicy chicken resonated well with consumers looking for the spicy bold taste," said Bill Whitman, a spokesman for the company.
In fact, the company in April credited sales of the spicy chicken sandwich with helping to drive U.S. sales higher by 4.1 percent that month.
"It's not that it didn't do well. It just didn't do well enough" to keep it onto the core menu, he said.
McDonald's spent 18 months developing the spicy chicken sandwich and declined to disclose how much was spent in development.
None of McDonald's premium sandwiches, whether burger or chicken, are among the chain's top-selling sandwiches.
Whitman said the top-selling sandwich is the double cheeseburger by a wide margin. The cheeseburger and McChicken sandwich are second- and third-best sellers. All three sandwiches are from the company's dollar menu, where all the products cost $1.
The McChicken is one of nearly two dozen chicken items the company now offers. While McDonald's is known as a hamburger chain, more than 30 percent of the items on its core menu are chicken products.
The spicy sandwich is not the first time that the company has stumbled with an offering. But it is one of the quickest removals for an item that wasn't a hit.
McDonald's stuck with its expensive Arch Deluxe sandwich for two years.
In 1981, McDonald's introduced a boneless pork sandwich called a McRib. Sales were mediocre and it was eventually canceled several years later.
In 1962, the company briefly offered a sandwich with grilled pineapple and cheese for consumers going meatless during Lent. It failed to catch on and the next year was replaced by the Filet-O-Fish, which is now one of the company's standards.
While the spicy chicken sandwich is still available in the Chicago area and a few other markets, Whitman said it would be discontinued as supplies are exhausted.
It will be replaced on the menu boards of the more than 13,000 U.S. McDonald's this month by the snack-size chicken wrap, which the company hopes will be the newest thing that can drive sales higher.
But the spicy chicken sandwich may not be gone for good. Whitman said it may return occasionally in a fashion similar to the McRib, which is brought back in select markets about once a year.
Bob Goldin, vice president of Technomics Inc., a Chicago-based market research firm, said canceling the spicy sandwich was the right decision.
"They have to be careful about over-cluttering the menu board," he said. "If they want to add some spice to something they can add a spicy sauce."