While fast-food companies are doubling down on the fried chicken sandwich wars, salad chain Sweetgreen is launching its own crispy chicken product, set to capitalize on the craze with a healthier twist.

The chain, best known for its seasonal offerings, has debuted a Crispy Chicken Salad, which includes crispy rice, romaine lettuce, baby spinach, blackened chicken, carrots, shredded cabbage, tomatoes and chopped local pickles. It is served with a remoulade dressing, which is similar to a “special sauce.”  

To promote the offering, Sweetgreen has teamed with top digital streamers including Peloton instructor and TEDx speaker Ally Love, YouTube gamer Valkyrae and Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters so that customers can order versions of the salad customized by these personalities.

Co-founder and chief concept officer Nic Jammet told CNBC that engaging with the influencers and their respective communities allows for broader customer reach across generations and highlights the ability to customize its menu.

“It’s a really exciting connection to make earlier in life,” Jammet said.

“This food is craveable and celebrated by people you love,” he said. “It lets you have a lot of fun telling great stories around this food and engaging people in that, to show them Sweetgreen is just as craveable as other fast-food brands people are used to.”

Sweetgreen is also asking customers to participate in a TikTok challenge called the #sweetgreenshake, showing how they mix their bowls, to win a year of free meals.

Restaurant companies have been working with influencers and entertainers and leaning into Gen Z marketing on platforms like TikTok in recent months to cater to a new generation of spenders. Dunkin’ and Chipotle have been marketing on the social media platform, and in 2020 McDonald’s enlisted rapper Travis Scott and reggaeton singer J Balvin to customize meals, leading to boosts in U.S. same-store sales in the last quarter.

The chicken wars will only heat up this year as McDonald’s gets into the game with three chicken sandwiches in February. Yum Brands’ KFC just added a premium chicken sandwich, joining the ranks of Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A, all competing to win over consumers. Sweetgreen’s offering is a healthy alternative.

“In January, to start the new year out, people are thinking about what they’re eating, and being conscious of their relationship with food,” Jammet said. “For us, it was referencing [the crispy chicken sandwich wars] into a bowl.”

The privately held company relies heavily on digital orders and will open its first drive-thru location this year, following others including Starbucks, Shake Shack and Chipotle in leaning more heavily into drive-thru concepts to cater to changing consumer preferences as a result of the Covid pandemic.

Jammet said the biggest takeaway from the health crisis has been the need to meet customers where they want to be.

“More than ever, the lesson is the importance of understanding customer needs and how to create experiences for them, whether it’s how to remove friction or how to think about what and how they are eating,” he said. “We want to create the best experiences for them, whether it’s how we change our menu or think about new channels, delivery or the digital experience.”

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