Chicken Takes Flight at C-Stores

chickenOverall poultry sales continue to experience strong growth as retailers look to boost their menus with healthy items that offer flexibility and value.
By Howard Riell, Associate Editor.

What’s not to like about chicken?

Americans love it for its taste, variety, healthfulness and price, and c-store operators like that it is versatile—think sandwiches, wraps, salads, tenders and rotisserie—easy to prepare and economical.

A good indicator of chicken’s enduring popularity is the number of quick-service and fast-casual fried-chicken concepts that have launched in the last year or two. And the growing variety of styles, from southern and spicy to Latin-accented, marinated and African peri-peri, attests to its flexibility.

Indeed, according to Tom Pirko, president of BEVMARK LLC, a retail consulting firm in Buellton, Calif., it is the exotic flavors that stir crowds at retail. “Chicken is boring. It’s the flavors you add that make it appealing. This is like brewers now pushing packaging, perhaps because the three light beers are  virtually indistinguishable and tasteless products, so  they have little choice. Same with chicken: it is how you deliver it—the packaging—that makes the sale, and not the chicken itself. Romance the packaging, that is, preparation and mode of presentation.”

Good Fit
“For the most part chicken is relatively easy to do, depending on exactly what program you’re doing,” said Jerry Weiner, senior vice president of foodservice for Rutter’s Farm Stores in York, Pa. “It’s kind of a fit with our core customer.”

Beyond that, chicken’s versatility makes it a valuable menu addition. “Chicken works in so many different ways. It’s a great topping for a salad; it works for a Caesar, Garden and Chef. We use it for just strips, we have boneless wings and grilled, plus sandwiches,” Weiner said. “It just has a lot of uses.”

Rutter’s chicken strips, for example, are used in seven different recipe items. “It has a lot of flexibility and that’s a big deal for us. Any time I can get one SKU that can work in seven menu items, that’s generally a win.”

The 58-store chain uses chicken to great advantage, for example, in its Chicken Salad Sandwich, $3.79; Grilled and Fried Chicken Clubs, $4.59; and Chicken Parmesan Sub, $4.79. Each of the items is menued next to its fat, cholesterol, calorie and sodium information.

Rutter’s added rotisserie chicken to its extensive menu in April of this year and, thus far, it is doing well, specifically helping to boost afternoon sales.

“Lunch is what I’d expected because that’s where the bulk of our traffic is. But we’re starting to see some movement at the dinner part and even on the weekends, which is really what I was hoping for,” Weiner said. “I was looking for this to drive business on the slowest day, which in most stores is Sunday, sometimes Monday.”

The rotisserie program is currently in 44 of the chain’s 58 stores and, for logistical reasons, a full systemwide rollout is not planned at this time. “It’s a little more difficult to operate this product in what we class as our traditional c-stores,” Weiner explained. “They do not have kiosk ordering, and they generally do not have a restaurant manager separate from the store manager. It makes it a little more difficult. It isn’t anything I wouldn’t consider, but certainly nothing in the immediate future.”

Rotisserie chicken made sense for Rutter’s for a few reasons. One, Weiner related, is that it offers high quality and price value. It is also an item that the chain’s competition doesn’t sell. The two-piece portions—breast-wing or leg-thigh—are priced at $3.89 for a quarter chicken and $5.79 for a half chicken.

“But on top of that, I’m always looking for items that will expand our business model in terms of foodservice at the hours of the day that are slower than other hours,” he said.

The heated-to-order rotisserie product has demonstrated just that. “We are plenty busy in the morning and certainly through lunch, and the afternoon snack is huge. Evening snack is a growing segment as well, too, but my favorite time of the day is at 2 a.m. when all the bars close. I love those people,” Weiner said. “So when you look to build a new section for your foodservice program you want to be able to do it with a product that delivers consistency and is versatile enough to serve fresh at lunch or at midnight. Chicken allows us to do that.”

Promotional efforts have, for the most part, been confined to stores. Billboards and other mass marketing efforts, Weiner explained, are reserved for programs that run systemwide. Still, he said he feels such an approach will be warranted when and if the program is expanded to an additional five or six stores.

Quick and Easy
Eric Enos, who with his wife Teresa owns and operates the Northwood Country Markets in Northwood, N.H., said there is no mystery behind chicken’s menu appeal. “It’s quick, easy and it’s delicious.”

The couple has notched major success with its decade-old chicken program. Enos’ menu currently includes 10 varieties, including the co-branded Roadies Chicken program with food partner Fresh & Fancy Food Systems. The operation includes a butcher shop, which means chicken is prepared fresh on site.

The Roadies line, which features a signature northern-style crispy breading, comes in a variety of sizes aimed at grab-and-go customers, including:
• Pick-Up Truck (1 breast, 2 thighs, 1 leg, 1 wing, 8 wedges, coleslaw, 2 rolls)
• Box Truck (2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs, 2 wings, 10 wedges, coleslaw, 4 rolls)
• Dump Truck (3 breasts, 3 thighs, 3 legs, 3 wings, 12 wedges, coleslaw, 5 rolls)
• 18 Wheeler (4 breasts, 4 thighs, 4 legs, 4 wings, 22 wedges, coleslaw, 8 rolls)

Boneless chicken tenders remain the No. 1 seller among the Roadies products, Enos said. “In the summer we do 400-500 pounds a week.” Other top sellers are the bone-in chicken and the three-, five- and eight-piece meals. When football comes around, the 18 wheeler and dump truck take center stage. Wings in general are strong sellers during football season.

Given the strong following Roadies has gained in New England, the Enoses always at least test market any new products that come from Roadies. “They came out recently with chicken on a stick—a boneless chicken tender that we fry right on the stick. It comes with chipotle barbecue or mesquite honey-mustard sauce and it just flies out the door,” Enos said. “The response from customers has been unbelievable. Sales have fully exceeded all of our expectations.”

The Market promotes its chicken program for parties, but has never done radio or local TV advertising. Enos does trumpet the program on his Website, on road signs and with a large sign on the side of his buildings.

The primary customers for his chicken items are younger to middle-aged males, mostly because of the large number of construction workers who stop in at lunch Monday through Friday. “They want something quick that is delicious. Then at night time a lot of it is families, and then on weekends we sell to everybody. We sell a ton of it on the weekends.” 

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