The flexibility of chicken as a menu item allows convenience store operators to develop profitable branded and proprietary programs without sacrificing quality or value.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
Whether it’s sandwiches, tenders, wings, fried, breaded or sliced, customers have affordable options which can offer them a new experience during each trip to the convenience store. Equally important for operators is that chicken’s reach extends across all three dayparts, which further enhances menu flexibility.
“Poultry is a very versatile protein that can be positioned in a number of ways for different dayparts to attract a very broad range of customers,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president for Chicago-based Technomic Inc. “It’s extending well beyond chicken. We’ve seen an increase in the number of turkey items on breakfast menus, and also some high-profile additions of chicken items at breakfast.”
In May, a Technomic survey revealed that consumers are eating chicken more frequently than any other type of meat, but they still want a wider variety of menu options. Those interviewed suggested that opportunities exist for new items, especially for the breakfast daypart. More than 25% of those taking part in the survey said they would very likely order chicken breakfast sandwiches at retail establishments if they found them on menus. Surprisingly, the figures were even higher when it came to turkey, with 29% responding that they would most likely order breakfast sandwiches or burritos featuring turkey.
“In addition to chicken being one of the most popular proteins on any menu, it also allows an operator to express its culinary and brand point of view,” said veteran foodservice consultant Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City. “The way it is prepared and the mention of both the products’ heritage (farm) and method of raising (cage free) can give the diner a view into the food philosophy and culture of the company.”
Indeed, leading convenience store chains are wowing customers with a long list of variations on the chicken theme. For example:
• Wawa is serving a Buffalo Blue Chicken Wrap, featuring grilled chicken strips, green leaf lettuce and Buffalo Blue cheese dressing. Also on the menu is a Chicken Caesar Wrap, also with grilled chicken strips along with shredded parmesan cheese, lettuce and Caesar dressing. Another popular chicken item on the Wawa menu is a breaded chicken sandwich using 4-, 6- and 10-inch hoagie or Kaiser rolls plus fixings.
• 7-Eleven recently introduced new Boneless Wings in sauce, available in Asian Habanero and Buffalo varieties. For those with nutrition in mind, they contain one-and-a-half grams of fat per serving (one gram for the Habanero), with five grams of protein and 60 calories each.
• Not to be left out, foodservice innovator Sheetz is offering, among other items, grilled chicken sandwiches and chicken “Stripz” with a host of dipping sauces. Also available are chicken salad; a grilled chicken fajita; made-to-order grilled chicken with a choice of a wheat or white sub; Southwest chicken sandwiches and wraps; chicken cordon bleu sandwiches; “Shmokehouse” chicken heroes with BBQ sauce, bacon and cooked onions; a chicken wrap; and a grilled chicken Caesar wrap.
The c-store industry has made such inroads with chicken that fast-food restaurants are starting to take notice. One of the industry’s primary fast-food competitors, Wendy’s, has begun marketing boneless chicken wings at a suggested price of around $3.99. Launched in June, Wendy’s is marketing the wings as a more upscale item than is normally found on fast-food menus.
Another competitor for the quick-service food dollar, Burger King, recently introduced a pair of items it calls “BK Minis” in burger and chicken varieties. The item sells for $3.79 per four-pack.
Start by Doing
Developing a good chicken offering is necessary to compete today and it is proving to be the foundation for future foodservice growth.
Some in the prepared foods industry are estimating that by 2016 chicken tenders will be as popular as hot dogs on roller grills. Consumers from coast to coast are exhibiting enthusiasm for this and a host of other hot, ready-to-eat foods prepared on the roller grill.
Chester’s Chicken, for example, is using a new cooking platform—speed ovens—for its Chester’s Chicken on the Fly brand. A c-store employee can just push a button and six minutes later have fried chicken. The program, which offers menu options for breakfast, lunch and dinner, has proven successful.
The most popular version of chicken for the c-store setting will undoubtedly also be the most mobile. The key phrase for operators will continue to be dashboard dining, which is clearly a growing segment. Americans may be eating more meals at home, but they’re getting them from other places and bringing them back.
Sales of chicken tenders and boneless wings continue to be strong as well. For example, during the Super Bowl, Americans consumed an estimated 1.25 billion chicken wings, a craving c-stores can easily cash in on.
For consumers who hesitate to consume fried items, many operators remain unapologetic, preferring to use trans-fat-free oils and preach moderation.
Food is the Future
“When I think of what I need to do to grow my business, I think food, food, food,” said Amer Hawatmeh, president and CEO of St. George Oil, the operator of Coast to Coast convenience stores. “The convenience store business has become just as much of a QSR as McDonald’s, but they are pushing back by expanding their fountain and coffee business. We’ve all got to be prepared by finding our niche and doing it better than everyone else.”
Chicken, Hawatmeh said, will prove important because it’s perceived as healthy and upscale—an image all convenience stores aspire to.
As with any foodservice program, Hawatmeh said the commitment must begin at the top.
“Success with food is directly related to how much time and effort you are willing to put into it,” he said. “Are you going to stand behind it? If management is willing to see it through, any sort of chicken program can succeed.”
And there is a lot riding on the success of foodservice. “You can put $5,000 into a food program that will return you $10,000, versus putting $5,000 into inventory that may return you 20-25% if you’re lucky,” Hawatmeh said.
“I don’t look at anything in terms of yes or no. I view everything in terms of what’s the possibility and how far can I take it? That’s what’s going to count in our industry when it comes to surviving in the future.”