Chicken Fuels Foodservice Flexibility

Whether it’s grilled, baked or fried, poultry meal solutions are available in a variety of dishes that are helping operators create a diverse menu.

Chicken has a “health HALO,” in the foodservice industry’s parlance, meaning consumers perceive it to be a healthy alternative to burgers and pizza.

Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for The NPD Group in Chicago, said status is what is keeping bone-in (usually fried) chicken sales down at the moment and grilled chicken sales steady. Ironically, chicken sandwiches, which are usually breaded and fried, don’t suffer the same stigma as traditional fried chicken.

“Consumers’ perception is that fried chicken on the bone isn’t healthy for you, but many don’t realize that most chicken sandwiches are also fried,” Riggs said.

Chris Carter doesn’t have to worry too much about perceptions. Carter is president of Shout and Sack Convenience Stores in Vinita, Okla. It operates a mammoth 12,000-foot convenience store that has sold chicken prepared onsite for nearly 30 years, from salads to meals, fried chicken to sandwiches.

Carter said his rural market—there are only 6,000 folks in town—doesn’t worry itself too much about whether a fried chicken sandwich is as bad for you as a fried chicken drumstick.

“They want it fried, period,” said Carter. “But every January, when the weather gets really cold, they want it grilled. Then they go back.”

What’s more, Carter has the dipping sauces for chicken tenders, which, along with popcorn chicken, make up the bulk of his sales. Creamy gravy, barbeque sauce and a ranch dressing that’s homemade with buttermilk have the health halo flickering.

Carter’s tenders business is a reflection of the trend in foodservice, particularly the convenience sector. C-stores are strong in morning and snacking foodservice dayparts, said Riggs, and those with limited marketing budgets should spend toward defending that turf rather than trying to play catch-up in lunch and dinner.

Chicken nuggets and strips are popular, according to Riggs, because they are chicken and easy to carry and eat. “Immediate consumption is where the opportunity is,” she said.

“You’ve got to work the bone-in end,” said Carter, who sells 750 pounds a week of strips and popcorn chicken. “This generation craves convenience. If I had chicken strips out there 24/7, I could sell them.”

Consistency is Key
Donna Sitka, food manager for Gonzales, Texas-based Johnson Oil Co., reported that when the chain began offering prepared chicken in five of its 23 Tiger Tote locations, even though the program was run by the same company, it lacked consistency. Sitka came on board to create a uniform product and a top-flight experience for customers.

Johnson Oil now has 10 Tiger Tote stores offering the company’s proprietary Mama’s Kitchen fried chicken. Under Sitka’s guidance, the stores began buying marinated chicken to help increase product hold times. “We work out of a six- or eight-tray food-warming case,” Sitka said. “We’re cooking on anticipation of demand, which means that we have to be especially careful the product retains its quality.”

To help employees deliver a consistent product, Sitka put together a foodservice manual to augment the hands-on training that covers everything from how to receive, store, thaw, prep and cook the chicken, as well as how to display the finished product in the case. Employees train for 40 hours initially and have to correctly perform every task on a food preparation and service checklist from the manual before being allowed to work in the deli.

Demand Surge
National Chicken Council research showed how important chicken is in the diets of U.S. consumers. Eighty-three percent of those surveyed purchased chicken in the past 60 days, and 53% eat it more than four times per week. Forty-seven percent said they eat chicken 1-2 times per week.

Fifty-two percent of consumers polled for Technomic Convenience Store Foodservice Consumer Trend Report said they would like to see more healthy food items in the stores. Only 28% said they were satisfied with the healthy options.

A quick look at fast-casual and QSR menus, especially the new items, makes it clear that chicken is hot. Spicy is popular, but the flavors and combinations underscore just why chicken is so omnipresent on menus across all food outlets.

“It’s simple, people like it and there’s so many things you can do with it,” said Carter. “That’s going to keep demand growing.”

Carter claims that his only waste is when chicken has been incorrectly cooked or held. He uses fried and grilled chicken on salads and makes chicken and dumplings.

Carter’s business is a bit of an anomaly because of how much he sells and because of his catering operation, Big Dawg—the convenience store and catering menus are chicken-centric. He has three Broaster 1,800 pressure fryers, and special orders his chicken legs and breasts to be big—12-ounce legs, 16-ounce breasts.
“Doesn’t it chap you when you’re a consumer and you get a chicken leg the size of your youngest son’s toothbrush?” said Carter. “That’s not what we’re all about.”

Carter said the keys to his chicken success—and probably foodservice in general—are cleanliness and consistency of product quality. He insists on high-quality fry oil for taste reasons and his crew—17 employees—filter the fry oil 4-6 times per day and change it out every other day. After frying fish or chicken livers, the oil has to be changed right away, he added.

Chicken cooking starts each day at 8:30 a.m. and ends around 4:30 p.m. What isn’t sold by 6:30 p.m. is wrapped and discounted.

Know the Market
Bubba Kirkland, head of merchandising and marketing for 302-store EZ Mart Convenience Stores in Texarkana, Texas, can’t claim that percentage of waste, but his chain’s chicken business is brisk. Under the Two Chicks proprietary banner—inspired by CEO Sonja Hubbard and a sister—16 stores have grab-and-go tenders (regular and spicy) and wings and 18 have Two Chicks Delis.

The larger operations have two 40-piece fryers with vented hoods and sell tenders, wings, bone-in fried chicken and sides from fried corn cob and mashed potatoes to green beans.

“In the markets where we do business (Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas), you have some potential for the healthier-for-you, but for the most part they prefer the taste of good ol’ fried chicken,” Kirkland said. “The majority is immediate consumption, but we get some that will buy 12-piece meals to feed the family.”

The grab-and-go locations can provide low-expense tests for the viability of a full Two Chicks Deli, Kirkland said.

While the number of Two Chicks Delis has tripled in the past decade, Kirkland admitted, “we move kind of slowly. There are a certain number of locations where it would not pay,” he said.

The chain has sold chicken for more than 20 years. The delis also sell burritos, chicken-fired steak, corn dogs, fish and burgers. It also has two stores with Subways and two with Hot Stuff pizza.

Two employees man the delis during peak hours, one to cook, bread, assemble, etc., and one to serve customers. The tenders for the grab-and-go locations are pre-breaded. Those at the delis are breaded on-site.

“If you take the labor out, there’s more cost to pre-breaded,” Kirkland said. “The breading to me is not that labor intensive. You still have to fry it.”

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