Chicken’s Popularity Soars to New Heights

Americans want it, but lots of operators are nervous about it. That’s why working with distributors and training employees on how to handle chicken is so important.

Consumers have very definitely stated preferences for chicken items, which is why chains like Wawa feature chicken prominently on their menus. For example, the Pennsylvania-based operator features chicken sandwiches (grilled or breaded chicken and tucked into a fresh Kaiser roll with a choice of fixings) and a chicken Caesar salad that includes seasoned white chicken, Romaine lettuce, shredded Parmesan cheese and garlic croutons. Another major foodservice player, Sheetz, offers its made-to-order (MTO) food program around the clock that features Grilled Chicken Sandwiches and Chicken Stripz.

Dale Ratcliff, general manager of merchandising for San Antonio-based Tesoro Petroleum Corp., said that his stores lack sufficient storage space to do its own chicken program. The chain operates a couple of Subway franchises and Taco Bell locations in its more than 380 company-operated stores. The branded programs use pre-cooked chicken, obviating the need for some employee training.

Chicken has emerged as such a popular menu item that in May, Taco Bell launched a chicken burrito as part of its new $2 value meal, the centerpiece of its “Why Pay More” value menu. Ratcliff described the demand for these products as “intense.”

Feel-Good Food
Without chicken on the menu, suggested Richard Lobb, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council in Washington, “you’re in big trouble. Chicken is the most versatile food. You can do practically anything you want with it. You can put it in any form you want—chicken sandwiches, fried chicken, roasted chicken, hot, cold. You could do a rotisserie operation. It’s limited only by your imagination, by space and time available, and the facilities you want to put in, if any.”

Chicken is also what consumers are increasingly looking for. “Consumption is very strong,” said Lobb. “Particularly for c-stores these days, what we’ve seen over the last year or so is a drop off in casual dining to some extent because of the national economic and unemployment situation. People are trading down, so yes, instead of going into the local sit-down casual dining place they might just stop at a c-store to pick something up.”

Customers are not only open to but looking for chicken on c-store menus. “It is a feel-good food, a Southern comfort food. Chicken is a thriving growth segment. People go to it to feel good, so to speak,” said Melanie Bowman, manager of One Stop stores in Johnson City, Tenn.

On a more practical level, the application of a chicken program is a great fit for convenience stores because the menu items tend to be highly portable, which is a benefit for dashboard dining or bringing a meal back to the office. “That is particularly true of the tenders like potato wedges. They’re something you can stop in for, grab and be on your way with,” Bowman said.

With so many different chicken programs available across the country, should operators be justified in being nervous about serving chicken? “I think the answer is yes and no,” Bowman said. “It depends on the infrastructure that they have in place in the stores.”

For example, programs that prepare foods directly from the freezer to the fryer tend to be safer because employees aren’t dealing with raw, uncooked food. Operators dealing with a fresh program have additional concerns—just as they do with hot dogs or sandwiches—and this is that employees closely follow established food handling, preparation and cooking guidelines.

Bowman said that the primary food safety training that store employees need when handling chicken is on hand-washing procedures. “But this is something you have to train your people on whether you’re doing a chicken program or a burger program or any kind of program. Making sure they wash their hands is essential at all times.”

Also essential for any type of cooked food: time and temperature controls. Store personnel need to be trained to be sure and monitor cooler, freezer and holding temperatures. “No matter what you read,” Bowman added, “those are the top two items that people refer to: hand washing and time-and-temperature control.”

Success with Chicken
Lobb called the price of chicken “still very competitive with anything else you would want to buy or stock in your store.”

Better still is chicken’s extreme versatility. “It takes all kinds of flavorings,” Lobb said. “You can go with more of a Latin flavoring package, or something that might appeal to Asian consumers or wherever you might want to be. People are looking for slightly more interesting flavor profiles than they have in the past, but not too far out there. The American public’s flavor palate still tends to be somewhat muted, frankly. But chicken has a great advantage in that it will take whatever seasonings you want to add.”

Another factor for convenience store operators to consider is that if done right, chicken is generally conceded to be a higher-margin item than other foodservice segments, most notably beef dishes.

“You can get a better price on chicken than beef these days,” Lobb said. “Plus, chicken is considered somewhat more of an ‘adult’ type of product, so you can charge a little bit more for it.”

In fact, most operators have reported that margins are only getting stronger. “Certainly grocery stores have had tremendous success with rotisserie,” said Lobb. “It might be difficult for a small c-store to install all that equipment, but you can get the product, and the margins are very strong.”

Wings, Lobb noted, serve as another good example of a turnkey menu offering. “There are a lot of companies that sell wings already cooked and ready to go. Wings have been just as hot as anything in the last few years. They have been so hot that the supply gets tight sometimes,” he said.

Casual dining restaurants have expanded the category by selling so-called “boneless wings.”

“Of course they’re not wings at all,” Lobb revealed. “They’re little chunks of breast meat that are breaded and sauced the same way as the actual bone-in wings. They appeal to people who don’t want to fool with bones and, more importantly, they appeal to both children and adults, so operators are  not restricting a menu item to only a small portion of their audience.”

They also appeal to operators who don’t want to worry about having to prepare fresh chicken, but want an attractive menu item with a foodservice return, “which is pretty much the goal of most convenience store operators,” Lobb said.

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