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Brandon Warner, an electrician with Acadiana Lighting & Signs, is framed by the arches of a McDonalds restaurant sign at N. Rieger Road and Siegen Lane, as he changes out a light bulb in the sign, Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.

CHICAGO — McDonald's has thrown down the gauntlet in the chicken sandwich and plant-based burger wars.

The fast food giant, the world's largest burger chain, on Monday announced it will introduce a crispy chicken sandwich early next year, doing battle with the popular poultry offerings at Chick-fil-A and Popeye's. It also said it is developing its own plant-based category, called McPlant, starting with a faux meat burger next year.

The highly anticipated sandwiches were announced during an investor presentation outlining the company's "Accelerating the Arches" growth strategy. A pillar of the strategy is doubling down on core menu items, with an emphasis on chicken, beef and coffee.

Streamlined menus focused on core items during the pandemic helped improve speed, profitability and customer satisfaction scores, the company said.

To strengthen its "chicken credibility," McDonald's plans marketing initiatives and line extensions on current favorites like Chicken McNuggets and the McChicken, including spicy versions. Early next year it will launch a "more satisfying, large" crispy chicken sandwich that is "tender and juicy" and includes crinkle-cut pickles on a buttered potato roll, McDonald's USA President Joe Erlinger told investors.

"Developing a great reputation in chicken is one of our highest aspirations," Erlinger said. The global chicken market is twice that of beef and growing faster, and the new sandwich is "going to jump-start our chicken journey," he said.

McDonald's franchisees have called for the company to focus on making a "world class" chicken sandwich as they face a rising threat from fast-growing Chick-fil-A, now the nation's third-largest restaurant chain.

The McPlant burger will be the first product in McDonald's nascent plant-based category that in the future could include chicken substitutes and breakfast sandwiches. It will be available for markets to test next year, executives said.

Consumers have been waiting for McDonald's to launch meatless burgers amid an explosion of interest in alternative proteins. Sales of fresh plant-based meat alternatives grew 121% over the year that ended Oct. 31, after growing 84% in 2019, according to market research firm Nielsen.

Several fast food competitors, including Burger King with its Impossible Whopper, have rolled out plant-based burgers nationwide.

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McDonald's last year started testing a plant-based burger called the P.L.T., which stands for plant, lettuce and tomato, that featured a meatless Beyond Meat patty. The test ended in April.

The new McPlant burger, made exclusively by and for McDonald's, is "made with a juicy, plant-based patty and served on a warm, sesame seed bun with all the classic toppings," the company said in a blog post.

Shares of Beyond Meat plunged on the news but bounced back in the afternoon. Beyond Meat said in an emailed statement that it co-created the plant-based patty that will be available as part of the McPlant platform.

McDonald's has not announced which suppliers it is working with on McPlant.

In addition to the menu changes, McDonald's is making big investments in digital ordering and drive-thru, which were key advantages the company has had during the pandemic.

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It is testing express drive-thru lanes dedicated to picking up orders placed digitally. It also is testing smaller restaurants that offer drive-thru, delivery and takeout only, with limited or no dining rooms.

The company, which made several technology acquisitions in recent years, is also devising ways to make drive-thru faster with automated ordering and payments made by identifying customers at the display screen. It said it already has cut drive-thru waiting times by 30 seconds in the past two years.

McDonald's is re-evaluating the role of its dining rooms as thousands remain closed to guard against the spread of COVID-19, executives said. The company, which closed dining rooms at all 14,000 of its U.S. restaurants in the spring, has reopened 2,000 of them. It said it has no current plans to reopen other locations.

Its indoor dining rooms in Illinois are closed, are are those in all other restaurants, under a state mandate.

Adding a third drive-thru window would eat into some of the space, Erlinger said. But "we do believe people will return to the behavior of coming to dining rooms," he said.

McDonald's sales have largely recovered from the huge hit they took during the early months of the pandemic. The company reported a 4.6% increase in sales at U.S. restaurants open at least 13 months, compared with last year, for the quarter that ended Sept. 30. Larger orders and more traffic at dinner offset a drop in breakfast business and an overall decline in customers. A promotion with the rapper Travis Scott helped drive sales.

McDonald's reported $5.4 billion in revenue for the quarter and $1.8 billion in profit. Globally, same-store sales were down 2.2%.

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(c)2020 Chicago Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC


Follow Kyle Whitfield on Twitter, @kyle_whitfield.​