I'm holding an 8-piece box of dark fried chicken from ShopRite while walking in a parking lot. It's $9 for 8 pieces.

A picture I took recently from a walk back from ShopRite after picking up a set of dark fried chicken (thighs and drums). I often start eating on the way back, since the chicken doesn’t get any fresher.

I’ve long been a proponent of getting fried chicken at supermarkets. I can’t speak for more local establishments, but of America’s big three fried chicken chains (Chick-fil-A, Popeyes, KFC), I think only Chick-fil-A is worth the money. More often than not, grocery stores that offer fried chicken do it better and at far better prices than the other mainstream chains.

One of the tipping points that turned me off from mainstream fast food fried chicken is a bad experience I had at the KFC in Allston when I was at MIT. In my childhood, KFC used to be synonymous with fried chicken, and indeed it used to be at the top. But earlier this month, it fell to #3 behind Popeyes in October 2023, and further behind Chick-fil-A at #1. KFC does well internationally, just not so great domestically anymore.

My single visit to the location in Allston left no questions as to why. The brand has fallen off, and it has fallen off hard.

The KFC two piece dark meat meal, with a thigh, drumstick, biscuit, and mashed potatoes.

Somehow KFC manages to be the most expensive and the worst in quality and portion size. Other locations might be doing better, but my visit to the Allston location of KFC only confirmed my earlier impressions.

A highlight of the KFC drumstick.

The drumstick was smaller than some drumettes you see from chicken wings. Frankly, I don’t think Colonel Sanders would be proud of this product.

Google map screenshot showing the route from MIT's campus to the KFC in Allston.

To get to the KFC in Allston, me and my dear friend Syd had to bike four miles away from the MIT campus.

I’ve had Popeyes a few times, but I don’t really like the way it tastes. I think it’s something in their frying oil. Even if Popeyes (or other chains like Jollibee) are actually better than supermarket fried chicken, it’s by such a thin margin that it’s not worth the increased expense. The only exception is Chick-fil-A, which truly does do it better.

Of the big three, I think there’s no mystery as to why Chick-fil-A has gotten so successful compared to the other chains. I’m no business analyst, so I can’t say anything about their methods in logistics or business strategy, but I do know that the product they offer is miles better than its competitors. I have yet to have a fried chicken sandwich anywhere else that holds up against Chick-fil-A’s. It’s just so good.

Google map screenshot showing the route from MIT's campus to the Chick-fil-A on Bolyston

There’s only one Chick-fil-A within 10 miles of MIT’s campus, and I would often bike there and back for their spicy chicken sandwiches. A previous Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had released a letter in 2012 pushing against the company’s attempt to open a Boston location. This location only opened in January 2022, and I went there frequently from Spring 2022 and through the 2022-2023 school year.

Chick-fil-A has had some baggage in the past with regard to charitable contributions to anti-LGBT groups, and part of that is rooted in their uncommonly religious background compared to other large American chains. It’s not enough baggage to shake it from its #1 position on customer satisfaction for the 9th year running on the American Customer Satisfaction Index, nor is it unadulterated enough that conservative Christian groups won’t take the opportunity to accuse it of pandering to liberal America.

I’ve heard rumors that the company has reformed its charitable contributions in recent years to become more palatable to liberal consumers. It’s a natural approach when a company is trying to expand outside of the American South, especially into the massive liberal urban coastal markets. The fact that Chick-fil-A has gotten so far despite its past baggage is because it has no real competition on quality of product.

In terms of whether it’s moral as a consumer to support Chick-fil-A as it is today, I wouldn’t sweat it any more than supporting any other big company like Nike or Nestle. You know how they are.

But enough about fast food restaurants. For a fraction of the price, you can get fried chicken at or above the caliber of non-Chick-fil-A chains at your local supermarket, at least in my experience living in Cambridge and Philadelphia. I often like to get a batch of fried chicken once every few visits to the supermarket.

As a policy, I only ever get dark meat (thighs and drums). A chicken breast cannot survive hours under a supermarket heat lamp the same way a chicken thigh can, and it will not measure up as favorably against its restaurant counterpart.

While I’ve been here in Philadelphia, I’ve been getting fried chicken from my local ShopRite. I haven’t sampled supermarket fried chicken from other stores, mainly because I’ve been staying put in my neighborhood. But it’s as good here as it’s been anywhere else, with delicious golden skin and acceptable meat.

Close-up of a fried chicken box with a sell-by in December 2019, $2 for 4 pieces.

4-piece dark (much rarer) sold hot in December 2019 at my local ShopRite when I visited for winter break freshman year. I imagine it must’ve been a mislabeling for the chicken to be sold so cheaply, since the 8-piece was usually $6.49 (now it’s $9, not a big increase). The quality hasn’t changed much in the years since. It’s just as tasty as ever. If you want a good picture of the chicken today, scroll all the way up.

When I was at MIT, I would get supermarket fried chicken at several nearby supermarkets (there, Shaw’s and Star Market). I don’t know if the ingredients vary by location, but I know that the manner of preparation certainly does. Each location had its own style. I never kept track of how it varied.

A close up of a fried chicken thigh in a paper bag.

Here’s a recent picture of a fried chicken thigh my dear friend Syd got from a Star Market in Somerville. We often used to get groceries and supermarket fried chicken together. Admittedly, it doesn’t look very pretty. It kind of looks like an amateur fry job that you might see at a high school bake sale with fried Oreos.

Over the years, I’ve tried frying my own chicken several times according to a copycat Chick-fil-A recipe on Serious Eats by (MIT alum) J. Kenji López-Alt. It’s an excellent recipe, but fried chicken really is one of those foods that both benefits from scale and can’t be feasibly meal prepped. I think most people are better off buying than making.

Whether you’re frying a few servings or many servings, there’s a comparable amount of preparation and cleanup because of the large quantity of oil. Meanwhile, you can’t exactly prepare ten servings of fried chicken the same way you might prepare a big pot of chili and expect the quality to remain steady over a week.

Pieces of fried chicken thighs in a fryer basket, draining from oil.

I fried this batch of chicken according to the Serious Eats recipe when I was still living at my dorm East Campus at MIT. I used a communal deep fryer that 5e got in either 2019 or 2020, but I think this occasion was the only time the fryer had ever been used.

Fried chicken connoisseurs might claim that supermarket fried chicken is too mushy or too soft on account of the way it’s made and stored. It can certainly be true, but I would say the quality can vary dramatically by location and time of day. I’ve only ever had good experiences with my local ShopRite in Philadelphia, but I have had bad experiences with some supermarkets in New England.

The mushiest, worst fried chicken you've ever seen.

Here’s some so-called fried chicken at a no-name supermarket in Connecticut. I bought it at a rest stop on the way back to Philadelphia at the start of winter break from when I was living on Cape Cod for the pandemic academic year 2020-2021. It was tolerable but not particularly good, kind of like most food that was sold on the Cape in the off-season. It was the worst supermarket chicken I’ve ever had. Still better than my visit to KFC.

The quantities in which the chicken is sold can also vary. In Cambridge, Star Markets tend to sell fried chicken by the piece, but my experience in Philadelphia has been that they’re sold in sets of four to eight pieces, most commonly eight. Here, they’re offered in both 8-piece regular (2 each of breasts, wings, thighs, and drums) and 8-piece dark (4 each of thighs and drums). As mentioned, I always get the dark.

On an empty stomach, I’m unable to eat more than three or (pushing it) four dark pieces in a single sitting. The leftovers, I tend to either eat cold straight from the fridge or reheated in an air fryer. Surprisingly, air frying leftover supermarket fried chicken can get pretty close to quality while fresh.

Another picture of fried chicken, same as the other Philadelphia ShopRite ones. Pretty good!

Some ShopRite fried chicken I bought during January 2021 when I was visiting Philadelphia from Cape Cod for winter break my sophomore year.

Close-up of a fried chicken box with a sell-by in June 2021, $6.49 for 8 pieces.

A picture I took of a 8-piece dark set sold cold in June 2021 at my local ShopRite when I was living in Philadelphia for the second pandemic summer. I assume that hot fried chicken from the previous day (or days) is relabeled and sold cold in the following days. It can be enjoyed as-is or reheated. I typically only buy fried chicken hot.

Roasted chicken quarters in plastic boxes on a heated foodservice shelf.

Sometimes, instead of getting fried chicken, I like to get the roasted leg quarters. It’s like rotisserie chicken but just the yummy dark meat, and it’s even cheaper. It’s too much to eat in one sitting so I like to eat the skin first and then keep the meat for later meals.