Like a school-yard bully in a '50s sitcom, Dunkin' Donuts wants your lunch money.
This morning, the chain quietly started serving two new fried chicken sandwiches at locations across the country. Though this launch was largely overshadowed by Monday's announcement of a new breakfast sandwich served on a doughnut, it may actually wind up being more significant in the long run. It's the clearest indication yet that Dunkin' Brands aspires to become a full-fledged restaurant rather than a place to grab breakfast and coffee on the way to work.
Both of the new sandwiches retail for about $3.99 and include a fried chicken cutlet and a slice of cheddar cheese on a French roll. A bacon ranch variety adds -- you guessed it -- strips of bacon and ranch dressing, while the barbecue flavor features a daub of sweet barbecue sauce. Each has about 600 calories. (Quite a bit more than the 390 calories cited in the doughnut sandwiches, for what it's worth.)
Stan Frankenthaler, Dunkin' Brands' executive chef, told The Huffington Post that the two new sandwiches are the result of years of experimentation with different kinds of sandwiches. His team first used fried chicken cutlets in biscuit sandwiches sold at Dunkin' Donuts locations in the Southeast. It has been offering French rolls since the bakery sandwiches menu was introduced in January 2012.
"The French roll has been really popular," he said. "It's really become one of the anchors for our bakery sandwich menu along with our bagels and croissants. It's baked fresh every day in each of our stores, except for a few really small ones, in gas stations and the such, that don't have ovens."
Frankenthaler said he expected the majority of the chicken sandwiches (unlike the new doughnut sandwiches) to sell in the afternoon, rather than during Dunkin' Donuts' traditional breakfast hour. He also admitted that the move toward lunch and more substantial food had been prompted in part by a desire to keep up with Dunkin' Donuts' main competitor, Starbucks, which has invested significant resources in improving its food recently.
Yet Darren Tristiano, a fast-food analyst at research firm Technomic, said he thinks it could be hard to get customers to think of Dunkin' as a viable pick for lunch.
"The sales opportunity, given their number of locations, is strong, but consumers will have a hard time giving them credibility for this type of product," he wrote in an email to HuffPost. "Other brands like KFC and Chick-fil-A will continue to dominate this product category and space. I applaud their efforts, but this one will be a tough sell."
If the sandwiches were really terrific, they could overcome the types of hurdles that Tristiano mentioned. Alas, a quick taste of each at a Dunkin' Donuts near HuffPost HQ made it clear that they aren't. The French rolls, as Frankenthaler boasted, are rather fresh tasting and crunchy -- they're more like the bread from places like Cosi or Panera than the soggy buns at KFC. But the frying-and-freezing process made the chicken cutlets wan and mushy. Treacly barbecue sauce and overly tangy ranch dressing drowned out any lingering meat taste. (Though the ranch was certainly more pleasant overall.)
In short: They aren't bad in a pinch, and wouldn't be an upsetting afternoon snack if you were on the road and Dunkin' Donuts were your only option. But they definitely don't pose a threat to Chick-fil-A.