By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, per capita consumption of chicken is projected to be 89.6 pounds this year, up from 84.7 pounds in 2014.
It is the most frequently served protein, particularly in the forms of tenders, strips and nuggets, said Jana Mann, senior director of menu trends at Datassential research company. Wings, she said, are also a huge offering that continues to grow.
“Just about any recipe that calls for a protein can be made with chicken,” Mann said. “Because consumers like it so much, it is also a great base for introducing new flavor profiles.”
As an example, she pointed to the BonFire Chicken Tomatillo Quesadilla that Maverik Convenience Stores added to its menu last November. She also noted that different dishes can be created by simply adding a sauce, such as peanut, mole or spicy chili. At the c-stores that Datassential tracks, 10% of non-beverage or dessert limited time options (LTOs) and new items introduced over the past year included chicken.
“Chicken provides an easy way to introduce ethnic flavors, for example, Mediterranean dishes such as kebabs and schwarma,” Mann said. “It also goes well with Indian flavors in items such as chicken tikka masala.”
When it comes to sandwiches and salads, chicken is the No. 1 choice, Datassential found. For pizza, chicken comes in third, right after sausage and pepperoni, she said.
In addition to its versatility, she noted, chicken has a health halo that makes consumers feel good about eating it. White meat is a favorite choice because it is lower in fat than beef or pork.
At about half of its 52 convenience stores in Mississippi and Arkansas, Double Quick Convenience Stores has a proprietary program it calls Hot N’ Crispy Chicken & Seafood. The company also has 13 Church’s Chicken franchises, five of which are located inside the company’s c-stores. Which program goes into each area depends on population demographics, whether company management determines that a branded concept would do better in particular markets and whether Church’s has franchise opportunities in those markets.
For the Hot N’ Crispy program, chicken is delivered two or three times a week. It is prepared in small batches throughout the day, said Rick Beuning, Double Quick’s vice president of foodservice operations.
The menu features both fried and baked selections. The baked chicken was introduced eight or nine years ago and has been growing in popularity ever since.
In addition to bone-in pieces and tenders, Double Quick offers livers and gizzards and hot wings. Every month, a new LTO preparation is offered. It could be made with different seasonings or sauces such as mushroom or barbecue, or a totally new item to test its acceptance.
Available sides include greens, macaroni and cheese, potato logs and more local and fresh selections. A hot lunch or dinner plate with two sides and a fountain drink or three sides costs $5.89.
“That’s a big bellyful of food for a great price,” Beuning said.
The food is plated to order at the deli case as a home meal replacement and is rotated often due to its quick turnover. Tenders are also popular in a sandwich for breakfast, between meals throughout the day and into the later part of the evening as snacks.
“We’ve been fortunate that this program has consistently grown for us over the past 16 years,” Beuning said. “We keep adding more equipment to keep up with the demand.”
Double Quick promotes its chicken programs in a monthly coupon flier, some radio advertising and by supporting local organizations and events. Beuning believes that the strongest response comes from customer word of mouth. Beuning pointed out that Double Quick is also very happy with its association with Church’s Chicken.
“Like us, they are absolute sticklers for freshness and serving the best food,” Beuning said. “They have a great brand, a great support system and a simplified system that can work for many operations.”
After trying partnerships with some other brands, Kwik Stop Convenience Stores’ chicken program hit its stride four years ago when it added Champs Chicken to the foodservice menu, said Jill Reimer, vice president of the c-store chain’s parent company, Dubuque, Iowa-based Rainbo Oil Co. Reimer said chicken sales in the three stores that have the program increased by 23% between 2013 and 2014, and represent 22% of total deli sales.
The fresh chicken is battered and fried in the stores and the pieces are sold in a variety of ways, including orders of individual pieces, two or three tenders, white meat dippers with sauces or on a stick. Other offerings include chicken in a bowl with mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and cheese; a two-piece white or dark meat entree with two sides; wings; and livers and gizzards.
The tenders and two-piece meal options sell best, both for and between meals, Reimer said. Larger quantities are also available as 8-12-piece family meals. These sell best for summer picnics and during holiday times.
“For Mother’s Day, we sold 48-piece orders,” Reimer said.“Because summer is peak sales time, that’s when we increase our marketing efforts with neighborhood fliers, mailers and bounce-back coupons. Throughout the year, we promote our chicken offering with exterior signage, LED reader boards and table tents.”
Aside from having a quality product, Reimer said that the difference between Champs and many other branded chicken programs is the company’s focus on and assistance with marketing.
“Champs has a great marketing program that incorporates digital media, constantly updated point-of-sale and advertising materials and menu upgrades,” Reimer said. “The company puts as much emphasis on supporting our marketing to our customers as it did on the initial sale of the program to us.”
Product at the deli service counter is constantly being rotated to maintain optimal freshness. After a specific amount of time in the warmer any extra chicken is cold-packed and sold out of the deli case to heat up at home.
“We know exactly how long our chicken has been in the warmer and when it needs to be rotated out,” Reimer said. “This is an effective way for us to control waste.”
At Kwik Stop convenience stores, chicken sells all day. The first batch is put out at 10 a.m. and it is available until about 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., depending on the store location and time of year.
Reimer recommended that convenience store operators who are considering adding a fresh chicken program consider that it requires a major commitment in terms of financial investment, personnel and procedures and protocol.
“First, you have the cost of the equipment—deep fryers, an exhaust system with a hood and a battering table,” Reimer said. “Then you have to dedicate personnel to prepare and sell the chicken—you can’t have someone running between the store’s food counter and the c-store front counter.”
There are also some very explicit health codes and procedures when you’re working with fresh food, particularly chicken.
“But if you’re willing to make the necessary commitments, a chicken program can be very profitable,” Reimer said.