updated 1/31/2006 12:24:17 AM ET 2006-01-31T05:24:17

McDonald's says it finally has a menu item with real "kick" for Americans who view its food as standard mainstream fare.

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The spicy chicken sandwich, available as of Tuesday in all 13,700 of its U.S. restaurants, is designed to put more zing in the fast-food chain's already strong sales, too.

Wade Thoma, vice president of U.S. menu management for Oak Brook, Illinois-based McDonald's Corp., declares the new sandwich the spiciest item ever at McDonald's in the United States.

But that's not as risky as it once would have been for the No. 1 purveyor of burgers and fries, which has been testing the sandwich in select markets for months and is armed with data about changing U.S. tastes. As McDonald's realized, spicy has fast become mainstream itself.

"America has gone to spicier, bolder flavors, and this is our way to provide them the taste that they crave," said Ralph Alvarez, president of McDonald's North America.

As with many of its menu items, McDonald's will be the biggest restaurant company to offer a spicy chicken sandwich but hardly the first. Rival Wendy's, Church's Chicken and other chains already sell it or have experimented with it.

"Spicy chicken is not anything new," said Bob Goldin, an analyst at Chicago-based food consultancy Technomic Inc. "But bolder flavors are a growing trend in the foodservice industry."

Reshuffling the menu also has proven key to the resurgence of McDonald's U.S. sales since 2003. The additions of entree-sized salads, McGriddles breakfast sandwiches, white-meat chicken nuggets and chicken strips have all been successful, and all those items have helped bump up the average amount spent by McDonald's customer.

Even if spicy chicken doesn't latch on permanently as a core menu item, as Morningstar analyst Carl Sibilski suspects, it will have served its purpose.

"It's always important to rotate a few new items through the menu so that customers don't become bored and simply walk away from your store just to try something else," he said.

The new product continues the one-time hamburger chain's growing embrace of chicken _ the result of a strategy Alvarez said was put into place three years ago to reflect Americans' eating more chicken than beef.

Chicken has since gone from $2.7 billion in annual sales for McDonald's to $4.4 billion, accounting for 35 percent of U.S. entree sales. The company sells more than 600 million pounds of chicken a year.

"The growth in chicken has not been at the expense of our hamburger sales, it's been in addition to them," Alvarez said. "Hamburger sales are up slightly over that period, too."

Two big winners from the trend: Tyson Foods Inc. and Keystone Foods LLC, McDonald's primary chicken suppliers.

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