By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.
Chicken comes about as close as food can to a can’t-miss opportunity for convenience store operators.
Chicken’s flexibility—and healthier perception—makes it one of the most popular products in the foodservice industry. And short of handling it unsafely, there’s not much a retail operation can do with it that won’t result in strong sales.
“I think it’s all about versatility,” said Joe Pawlak, vice president of Chicago-based research and consulting firm Technomic Inc. “Chicken is one of the most versatile ingredients out there in the foodservice market. What I mean by that is the ability to offer products that go beyond just kind of standard chicken sandwiches. You can put chicken in salad, you can put chicken in pasta, you can put chicken in entrées or burritos. Just about any type of dish can use chicken. It’s very, very flexible.”
A food with that kind of adaptability is just what the doctor ordered when it comes to c-stores, given some of the retail channel’s inherent limitations.
“When I think about convenience stores, in many cases I don’t think about a broad product line,” Pawlak said. “But by purchasing chicken they can use it in a number of different applications, which allows them to offer more variety to the consumer.”
Diversifying the Menu
That additional versatility is important not only to attract customers, but to help fend off competition by restaurants and supermarkets.
“Everybody is chasing that dollar,” Pawlak said. “Convenience stores are the ultimate destination for time-starved consumers when they want something quick to eat. It’s all about convenience. Those who are figuring out the formula, chains like the Sheetz and the Wawas of the world, are all doing very well because they do offer variety and good quality. Those guys are the winners in this game.”
With the ability to craft a diverse menu centered on chicken, c-store operators are taking the time to
incorporate poultry onto their menus.
“I’m going full blown with chicken in the new stores that I’m building now with an upscale Quick Café concept,” said Amer Hawatmeh, president of St. George Oil Co. in St. Louis, operator of six Coast to Coast convenience stores. “We will be bringing in cooks and chefs with a foodservice background. As a restaurateur, I would tell you that chicken, without question, is one of the best things to work with. When it’s raw it’s the most dangerous, but once you’ve cooked it, chicken has the longest hold times. Its perception, on a health basis, is better than all the other proteins.”
Chicken earns its place on the menu by virtue of its cost effectiveness and ease of accessibility, as well.
Hawatmeh called it “the most efficient investment in the entire food gamut. It’s more efficient than bread,” he said. “And there are tons of profits to be made using chicken, whether it’s chicken on salads, wraps or as part of a larger entree.”
Coast to Coast stores feature at least 10 varieties of chicken, including side dishes and even chicken-based marinades.
Even with limited kitchen sizes, convenience stores can certainly compete with other channels in terms of quality. “But you have to keep your eye on the ball in terms of cooking standards and making sure your products are on-trend in terms of flavor and spices,” Pawlak said.
“Consumers like made to order, or at least perceived to be made fresh when it’s ordered. That may take some investments for a c-store operator, but these are easy obstacles to overcome to compete with other foodservice venues.”
One of the most enduringly popular varieties of chicken is also one of the easiest to carry, handle and eat: wings. Though sales surge during March Madness season, they can and should remain on c-store menus year round.
“Wings have remained a year-round favorite, exhibiting substantial innovation and room for growth,” according to Technomic’s Executive Vice President Darren Tristano. “Wings and sports have long been a winning combination—and more than 10% of all wing-based limited-time offers are game-day promotions.
Wings’ overall appeal comes from their ability to suit consumers’ desire for customization, including traditional and global flavor options from sweet to super hot, and for portion flexibility, serving as snacks, starters, entrées and sides. And they are fun finger foods that are easy to share, so they lend a social aspect, Tristano said.
In its consumer research, Technomic found that 36% of the top 500 restaurant chains in the country offer wings, and that the percentage has been growing.
Of particular note to c-stores which, as Pawlak noted, need to stress variety, is the large number of ways in which restaurant competitors are offering wings.
Wing flavors and sauces found on menus range from Buffalo to tequila-lime-barbecue, Technomic reported. Buffalo and other hot sauces are the most commonly menued wing sauces.
Among these types, the less-spicy mild and medium sauces have declined as Buffalo and extra-hot varieties have grown. Technomic found that quick-casual foodservice chains can offer up to 18 different wing sauces.
C-stores may not be able to offer nearly that amount, but it’s important for operators to understand what their competitors are offering and, more importantly, what customers are buying.
While chicken can certainly be marketed as a healthy product, Pawlak and his colleagues at Technomic said that may not even be necessary anymore. “I think that people in general already think that chicken is healthy, so you don’t have to market it as such,” he said. “I think what you need to do is highlight the fact that it is flavorful, on-trend, very conducive to different flavors and seasonings. Talk about the versatility and all the different chicken items that you have on your menu.”
Don’t Be Chicken
Food safety is always a concern when working with raw chicken, of course, but only to a point. Once the basics are nailed down—and there is lots of help available in the form of information and training materials—operators should lose their poultry panic.
“Handling chicken when it’s raw is the danger point in food safety. But once you’ve cooked it and you chill it right, then it’s a no-brainer,” said Amer Hawatmeh, president of St. George Oil Co. in St. Louis. “Then it’s safely wrapped or stored in a container and it’s as safe as safe can get.”
Employees have to be certain to keep cooked and raw product totally separate in the cooler. “But as soon as you figure out where you’re going to need it and where you’re going to keep it—it stays on the lower shelves in the coolers—then once you cook, you’re good. You don’t have to worry about it anymore,” Hawatmeh said.
Handling raw chicken safely isn’t difficult, as long as the basics are taken care of. They include:
• Storing raw chicken on lowest shelves in the cooler to avoid having it drip into other foods.
• Thawing product carefully, which usually involves placing frozen product in a refrigerator overnight.
• Rinsing it in hot tap water to remove, among other things, disinfectants and detergent.
• Making sure the product doesn’t touch anything it shouldn’t.
• Stressing the need for employee hand washing.
• Cooking at sufficiently hot temperatures.