Chicken continues to pace the hot prepared food category thanks to its ability to attract a diverse audience. Perhaps because it’s viewed as a healthy alternative to red meats, chicken—as flexible as it is flavorful—also remains a favorite choice for salads, sandwiches, soups and entrees, which is why more c-store operators are making it the center of their foodservice offering.
The number of stores a channel retailer owns appears to have little if any effect on chicken sales. Indeed, chicken sales are doing as well at One Stop, a two-store chain based in Johnson City, Tenn., as they are at bigger chains.
Chicken Sales Sizzling
One Stop general manager Melanie Bowman reports that its store with a broasted chicken program sells more than 1,000 pieces of chicken every day. Menu items centered on all three dayparts—whether it’s breakfast sandwiches or dinner salads—have customers picking up meal packages that continue to drive her chicken business.
“A mom or dad will pick up a family pack that includes broasted chicken, two veggies and bread, and take it home for the evening meal for under $20,” Bowman said. Sides include coleslaw, baked beans, broccoli casserole, macaroni and cheese, green beans, mashed potatoes, corn and sweet potato casserole. Some folks come in and just get a veggie plate.
Broasted chicken, Bowman explained, is cooked under pressure at 360 degrees before getting lightly coated with a special wheat flour before being fried. “As far as fried foods go, it’s definitely one of the healthier ones,” she said.
Rotisserie on the Rise
At larger chains, chicken also is a popular draw. Seventy-four of Fas Mart Convenience Stores’ 205 locations currently sell chicken and have a deli, said category manager Sharon Trow. Rotisserie chicken is available in 12 locations and every store that doesn’t have a rotisserie offers baked chicken as well as the company’s famous fried chicken, which is marinated, then rolled in a proprietary breading before frying.
“We offer anywhere from two-piece snacks to 16-piece meals as well as bulk chicken,” Trow said. Bulk chicken sales run especially high during the summer when companies, churches and other organizations hold picnics. “We price it out from 25 to 1,000 pieces, and if someone wants more than that, we figure out a price for them.”
This year, the Mechanicsville, Va.-based chain projects it will sell close to 1.5 million pounds of prepared chicken. Fried chicken sells the most, just ahead of chicken wings, which are available in hot and mild versions.
To complement the poultry program, Fas Mart sells a myriad of hot sides to go with it, which Trow said shouldn’t be overlooked because of their profit potential and ability to grow incremental sales. “Mac and cheese is the No.1 seller,” she said, but the chain also offers mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, green beans, carrots, black-eyed peas, a California blend of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots, biscuits and dinner rolls, scalloped potatoes, French fries and potato wedges.
Most Fas Mart stores start selling chicken around 9 a.m. in order to capture purchases from dinner-hungry night-shift workers and those headed to work to buy for lunch. The company promotes a different fried chicken home meal replacement menu each month, generated through its loyalty and rewards program.
“Customers who are members are able to get the sale price,” Trow said. “And whether through a special price on an eight-piece meal or a five-piece snack, we always offer our customers a promotional opportunity on our core business.”
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.
JOC 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 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.
Sitka’s company is adding a four-well steam table in three of its 11 stores that sell food, a move that allows offering some healthier, non-fried sides like mashed potatoes, Spanish rice and beans and mixed vegetables as well as a rotating plate lunch of the day.
The new format launched in the first of the three stores last October, in the second one last May and will arrive in the third store this month.
“We operate in smaller towns where there aren’t a lot of restaurants or other convenience stores that do foodservice to the degree that we do,” Sitka said. “We’re the place people come for lunch or to pick up food to take home for dinner, and while we don’t claim to be perfect, we strive to create the same eating experience in every store.” CSD