Flexibility Fuels Chicken

America’s passion for poultry is translating into greater opportunities for c-stores to strengthen their foodservice presence across all dayparts and provide destination-worthy products with high perceived customer value.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor

Whether prepared plain or fancy; fried, broiled, roasted, grilled or baked; in tenders, strips or “popcorn” bites, chicken has universal appeal, said Dr. Nancy Caldarola, education director for NACS Café.

“What kid doesn’t like a drumstick?” Caldarola said. “Chicken is a favorite of all ages and it’s a popular choice for family meals.”

Universal Appeal

Just about every culture includes chicken in its cuisine at least partly because it provides a neutral palate for seasonings to suit specific local and regional flavor profile preferences. In non-fried preparations, it can also provide appetizing options for health-conscious consumers.

In a poll of 1,500 consumers by Technomic research firm, nearly nine out of 10 said they ate chicken more frequently than other meat, once a week or more often. More than half of the respondents who ate chicken at least occasionally said they would be very likely to order stir-fries, entrée salads, pasta and rice dishes served with chicken.

New data from Chicago-based research group Mintel International  showed that the number of U.S. menu items with poultry as an ingredient has risen an average of 12% in the past three years. The report also forecasted that this number will continue to increase in the next 2-3 years.

“Although chicken commodity costs have risen considerably over the past few years, it is still a relatively economical protein selection, particularly compared with beef,” Caldarola said.

Menu Diversity

Over the past few years, meal-worthy chicken selections have become staples on many traditionally beef-centric quick-service menus. In April, for example, Burger King touted the introduction of its new Garden Fresh Chicken, Apple and Cranberry Salad and its Crispy Chicken Strips with what the company described as the biggest sampling campaign in its history. Thirty BK-branded trucks were dispatched to 40 cities throughout the country to distribute free product tastings. Free samples, which Caldarola is a strong advocate of in convenience stores, were also available to customers who visited any of more than 3,000 participating Burger King restaurants.

Jack in the Box features a Chicken Teriyaki Bowl entrée with steamed rice, carrots and broccoli on its “Healthy Dining” menu. Baja Fresh also offers chicken bowls in regular (with cheese, rice, beans and corn) and “skinny” varieties (bulked out with squash rather than cheese, rice and corn).

Since York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Farm Stores introduced its stir-fry dinner bowl program in 2008, the chicken variety has gained numerous fans, said Jerry Weiner, the chain’s vice
president of foodservice. Prepared with the customers’ choice of three vegetables and three sauces atop fried or white rice or Oriental noodles, the complete entrée sells for $5.99. The wok program is available in 18 of Rutter’s 57 stores.

“I don’t think people can have enough chicken,” said Joe Hamza, vice president of sales and marketing at Rockland, Mass.-based Tedeschi Food Shops, which operates 190 convenience stores throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut.

In March, Tedeschi launched a new fresh, grab-and-go line of refrigerated upscale Indian entrées under its proprietary Café Spice sub-brand to appeal to a wide variety of culinary palates, invite the trial of new flavor profiles and tap into the growing trend among young adults to opt for spicy and international flavors. Hamza pointed out that in addition to offering a tasty alternative to traditional lunchtime offerings, the single-serve meals, three out five of which are chicken-based, have also allowed Tedeschi to make a strong entry into the dinner daypart.

Spice Café’s Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken Vindaloo and Chicken Curry entrées come complete with saffron or lemon rice. The retail price of $4.99 was set to position them as meal solutions that offer good value, Hamza said.

Tedeschi is testing whole rotisserie chickens in one of its stores, with an eye toward rolling out the product in other selected locations. Hamza noted that despite volatile commodity prices, chicken-based meal solutions will remain a major focal point of the chain’s fresh foodservice menu.

Healthy Benefits

Chicken’s perceived halo of health gives time-crunched moms a feel-good take-out option for their families, retailers and industry experts agree. To build a dinnertime customer base, Caldarola suggested that retailers partner with local elementary schools and day care centers to offer discounts or promotional deals on meal items during
specific hours when parents are most likely to be coming home from work or picking up the kids.

Consumers are also redefining the entire concept of “meal.” Instead of ordering one regular-size sandwich or entrée, many are trading in traditional meal times and portions for a series of snack-size food items eaten on the run throughout the day, said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant industry analyst for NPD Group research firm.

Although they might be eating more often, many, including women and Baby Boomers, are looking for options such as chicken wraps and other non-fried preparations to help them control calories and eat more healthfully. The portability of such items makes them even more attractive.

To make any chicken program a success, Caldarola recommended that retailers research what parts (i.e. breasts, thighs or legs) and flavor profiles are the most popular in their particular regions.

“It’s not just all about white meat anymore,” she said.

In a survey conducted for the National Chicken Council by SymphonyIRI and published last year, 72% of chicken-buying consumers said they like all kinds of chicken parts. During the 13 weeks ended March 31, 2012, chicken thighs saw 6% volume growth at supermarkets (11% dollar growth) despite a 5% increase in average retail price, according to the National Chicken Council.

Different parts and preparations make it easy for retailers to offer meals at a variety of price points, Caldarola said. At Meyer Oil Co.’s Mach 1 Food Shops in Fairfield, Ill., Champs Chicken is a major foodservice draw, said Dave Linder, the general manager for Meyer Oil.

Although tenders are the top-sellers, Linder regularly uses recipes from a cookbook provided by Champs to keep his menu fresh and exciting for customers. Bone-in pieces have also allowed Mach 1 to establish a booming catering business, particularly during holiday and school graduation seasons. The store regularly receives orders for 50-100 pieces during these periods, he said.

Both Tedeschi’s rotisserie unit and Rutter’s wok stations add theater to the stores’ fresh foods sales areas. They also create appetizing aromas. According to Caldarola, creating good smells is the No 1. merchandising tool for foodservice.“In foodservice, you sell with smell,” she said. “It’s hard to walk into a place that’s cooking chicken and just buy a soda.”



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