Napoleon is said to have called Britain “a nation of shopkeepers”. Historians still debate whether it was a backhanded observation, or a compliment. Had he visited the country today, the Corsican might have only tweaked his supposed original remark to: “a nation of chicken shopkeepers”.
And, like many visitors to the UK, he might also be somewhat perplexed. Leaning towards a member of his cabinet particulier while tucking into a two-piece chicken meal with fries and a coke, here are some of question he may have asked.
Why are there so many?
Chicken shops are everywhere. An FT Weekend Magazine article from 2020 looking at chicken shops as cultural phenomenon put the total at 3,651 across Great Britain. There are now 4,424, marking a 21 per cent rise in three years, according to the Local Data Company. (For comparison, there are roughly 7,400 coffee shops.)
These figures are more than a little vague: an independent fast food consultant told me that constant churn in the eateries makes counting them difficult. Consultancy Mintel estimates that the chicken outlet and restaurant market was worth around £2.3bn last year — and could be closer to £3bn by 2027. (Throwing in burger outlets that also sell fried chicken, that figure moves closer to £9bn).
Visually, for what it’s worth, there are many — particularly in London. I have recently forgone Kilburn High Road, where there is a chicken shop almost every 100m (including neighbours Chicken Cottage and Chicken Valley) — for suburbia, where I do not count any. Along Mile End Road, in east London, one count suggested there were 42 chicken shops for each secondary school in the local borough. It is known as the Chicken Shop Mile.
Alongside US brand names like KFC and Popeyes — which first opened in the UK in 2021 and is planning 350 UK stores over the next decade — London’s streets are filled with smaller outlets flogging a remarkable amount of battered chicken wings, for just a few pounds, in their famous orange-coloured boxes. Chicken cottage, Morley’s, and various shops with the words “Fried Chicken” lobbed on the end seem to be ever-present.
They are part of London’s cultural fabric, inspiring YouTube sensations “The Chicken Connoisseur” and Chicken Shop Date. There are even fancy outlets that appeal to hipsters, selling high-end chicken with a multitude of flavours in an artisanal vibe. But the bulk of fried chicken eaters are 16 to 34 year olds.
Simply put, Britons appear to have an insatiable appetite for fried chicken.
Why is it so cheap?
Chicken shops just make sense from a business perspective (if not from a one of health, environment, or the welfare of chickens). Breeding science and farming tech have pushed down the cost of a whole chicken per kg by around 50 per cent since the early 1970s, in 2023 terms, to just under £4 today.
Low-cost chicken, bought in bulk, prepared with cheap frying kit and minimal labour costs — combined with a captive market of tight-pocketed and fried-chicken loving youngsters — equals decent profit margins. Typical gross margin has been estimated at 70 per cent.
With high turnover, rents seem manageable. Rightbiz, for instance, lists chicken shops for sale with annual turnover in the range of £200k-300K and rent between £9k-20k. Many smaller outlets are also able to obtain some business rates relief.
Why are there so many in one place?
While I do not consider myself a connoisseur, I hopefully do not offend anyone in saying that differentiation — particularly at the cheaper end of the chicken market — is not particularly high. Is there really a stark difference between Houston Fried Chicken and Southern Fried Chicken? Even price points do not appear to differ so much.
Obviously, American economist Harold Hotelling’s principle of minimum differentiation — also known as Hotelling’s Law — is key here. It is the observation that it can be rational for producers to make their products as similar as possible, and it works like this (repurposed from Wikipedia):
Suppose there are two competing chicken shops located along the length of a street, with customers spread equally along the street. Both want their shops to be where they will get the greatest market share of fried-chicken lovers. If both shops sell the same range of goods at the same prices then the locations of the shops are themselves the ‘products’. Each customer will always choose the nearer shop as it is disadvantageous to travel to the farther.
That tends to explain why several arterial roads in London seem to have an endless run of chicken shops. It is, to an extent, a Nash Equilibrium. Although I’m sure John Nash would perhaps prefer his lemma were applied to more important matters.
But as with any “economic model” there are questionable assumptions. For Hotelling’s Law, it is the idea that customers are spread equally along the street. That would be unlikely. Perhaps then it is a combination of distance to one’s nearest chicken shop and an element of loyalty that matters. Maybe there is enough differentiation too, for the connoisseurs.
How can there be space for new entrants?
A Popeyes recently opened up on Kilburn High Road. It is near several other chicken shops — and opposite a McDonald’s.
Popeyes’ existing and planned London sites include many high street spots with chicken shop competitors nearby: Ealing, Wembley, Richmond, Kilburn, and Woolwich. Similar too for its delivery kitchens in Wood Green, Whitechapel (not far from the Chicken Shop Mile), and Brent Cross.
Few would have thought KFC needed competition, with the plethora of independent chicken stores in London — but Popeyes apparently disagrees: these are all also KFC locations.
As in the US, where Popeyes recently overtook Colonel Sanders’ outlets as the No.2 chicken chain (both are behind Chick-fil-A), it likely wants to go toe-to-toe with KFC in the UK.
So what is it offering that the Colonel can’t? Price, for now. An (admittedly) basic index of wing prices, based on the price per wing of a few selected outlets on my UberEats and Deliveroo app, and indexed to the cheapest (in this case, Sam’s Chicken), actually shows that Popeyes is competitive, at least on wings.
But, it also has brand appeal and a wider array of offerings — making it competitive beyond fried chicken (I hear its chicken sandwich is particularly popular, and apparently it caters for weddings too).
The business, which is backed by private equity firm TDR Capital, is following in the footsteps of US chains Wendy’s, Taco Bell and Wingstop, which all entered the UK market in recent years. They have not faced much difficulty in establishing themselves, as there appears to be a novelty cultural element for Brits tapping into American fast-food brands.
It is also possible that Popeyes is being cautious about its pricing initially, while it establishes itself. This means it could temporarily absorb some business from the smaller local independents too.
But in the long term, when it comes to prices for an entire meal (chips, wings and a drink) the independents are still considerably cheaper and retain considerable customer loyalty. Yes, the Popeyes in Kilburn High Road seems popular, but the likes of Chicken Shop and Chicken Cottage very much still packed. With the difference in price, going for a KFC or a Popeyes is a relative treat. The quality of food is certainly a notch higher, and — while discerning the grades of healthiness across the fried chicken shop spectrum is splitting hairs — many may trust the bigger brands with their ingredients and sourcing.
Popeyes has arrived on these shores to compete with KFC in the fried chicken premier league. (In the US, KFC and Popeyes’ prices are not that different.) It is also planning to expand rapidly in China, where KFC — and demand for fried chicken — is well-established.
There’s no reason to think this chicken takeover will run out of wings — poultry consumption is set to grow. Lower prices, product consistency and adaptability, higher protein/lower fat content and a growing tilt away from red meats means the market should stay resilient.
Incidentally, Chick-fil-A has recently announced its plans to open in Britain in 2025. When there is a surfeit demand for fried chicken, there is surprisingly a lot of space for differentiation.
— Follow the chicken (YouTube)