The chicken sandwich wars began in earnest when Popeyes introduced its fried chicken sandwich in August 2019, leading to a social media battle with Chick-fil-A and an ensuing surge in sales and popularity for both brands. This phenomenon saw over 20 American fast-food brands adding fried chicken sandwiches to their menus in the following two years. 

The economic impact was significant, with Edison Trends reporting a 420-percent growth in online spending on chicken sandwiches between January 2019 and December 2020. 

But while the fast-casual dining industry was once dominated by the heated chicken sandwich wars, it is witnessing a new era of competition: the cauliflower showdown. 

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Much like in the original chicken sandwich wars, Chick-fil-A was one of the first to stake its claim in this meatless battle. Last year, the chicken chain introduced the Cauliflower Sandwich into a test market in Denver, CO; Charleston, SC; and North Carolina’s Greensboro-Triad region. Here, 68 percent of customers who tried it reported that the meatless sandwich—which contains dairy ingredients—exceeded their expectations.

While the Cauliflower Sandwich found favor with Chick-fil-A customers, the chain has yet to add the meatless sandwich to its menu, leaving room for another chain to beat it to the punch. 

This week, Los Angeles-based Dave’s Hot Chicken is entering the cauliflower showdown with Dave’s Not Chicken, its first meatless option hitting the menu at 180 locations nationwide. 

Dave’s Not Chicken: a cauliflower-powered sandwich

Dave’s Hot Chicken was founded as a pop-up in a parking lot in 2017 by Chef Dave Kopushyan, Arman Oganesyan, and Tommy Rubenyan. Since then, the brand experienced rapid growth, bolstered by strategic franchising and high-profile investments, including from musical artist Drake.  

Known for its simple menu focusing squarely on Nashville-style hot chicken, Dave’s has embarked on a new journey with the launch of “Dave’s Not Chicken,” marking the brand’s first significant menu expansion since its inception nearly seven years ago.

“Dave’s Hot Chicken has always had a very passionate fanbase but we’ve also heard from many of those guests that they’d love to see a meat alternative on our menu, too,” a spokesperson for Dave’s tells VegNews. 

Dave’s Not Chicken is a line of sliders and bites that are made with cauliflower, an innovation spearheaded by founders Oganesyan and Kopushyan. The new cauliflower items utilize the same cooking method and spices as the chain’s popular chicken tenders.  

Instead of looking to plant-based chicken alternatives, Dave’s focused on the versatile vegetable. 

“We wanted to keep it real with fresh heads of cauliflower that we slice by hand in all of our locations,” said the spokesperson. 

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“We know that there are a lot of manufactured, plant-based options in the world and that’s great, but we also knew that our guests would appreciate a great-tasting, meatless option made from a real, unprocessed vegetable like fresh cauliflower,” the spokesperson says. 

The new meatless chicken, while centered on a plant, is not vegan as it contains dairy and egg ingredients throughout the batter and bun. However, Dave’s exploration of cauliflower as a stand-in for chicken is significant. 

Cauliflower gains new fans

Dave’s tested its cauliflower options in a limited run in Oregon last year and, much like Chick-fil-A, got overwhelmingly positive feedback, which ultimately influenced the chain to put Dave’s Not Chicken on the national menu. 

“Not only do our current guests love having a cauliflower option, but it brought in a lot of new guests as well, and the Dave’s Not Chicken buyers came back sooner and more frequently,” the spokesperson said. 

This year, Dave’s Hot Chicken successfully expanded its footprint to 180 locations, exceeding its goal of operating 170 units by the end of 2023. Its new option is a critical move for Dave’s as it continues its expansion efforts.

“Dave’s Not Chicken is very important to our overall growth strategy,” the spokesperson says. “The new cauliflower items are prepared and cooked almost identically to how we prepare and cook our chicken. So, it’s very manageable operationally yet it speaks to both our current customers and new customers, and it’s often very difficult to achieve all of those objectives simultaneously.

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Could a vegan sandwich ever hit the menu here? Dave’s Hot Chicken is open to expanding its plant-based offerings as long as it can balance innovation and quality. “We’ll be cautious about bringing in many new things of any kind, but never say never,” the spokesperson says. 

In the meantime, the chain is investing in unique advertising strategies to make sure its meatless sandwich is a contender in the cauliflower showdown. This includes changing the exterior signage at 16 of its locations to “Dave’s Not Chicken” and creating an eye-catching 3D billboard in Los Angeles at the Moxy Hotel, a prime ad space near the LA Convention Center previously utilized by the likes of Nike and Red Bull.

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