Getting Creative with Chicken

Whether it’s spicy or mild dishes such as specialty tacos or poppable bites, chicken lends itself to foodservice experimentation that keeps customers returning in flocks.  

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Assistant Editor

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Americans are expected to consume 91.8 pounds per capita of chicken in 2016, up from 90.1 pounds last year, according to the National Chicken Council. Part of the reason for poultry’s popularity can be attributed to the higher cost of beef, but that’s far from the only reason.

Aside from being the other white meat, promising healthy grams of protein, chicken is a blank canvas, which makes it the perfect protein to adapt to different flavor profiles and preparations to keep consumers interested and meet their changing lifestyle needs, said Suzy Badaracco, food trendologist with Portland, Ore.-based Culinary Tides. She explained that convenience store retailers should look beyond their own four walls to keep track of trends, many of which start in the full-service or fast casual restaurant realms.

Right now, for example, spicy flavors are in favor on menus all over the country, she noted. On the full-service front, Applebee’s Grill & Bar is featuring a Grilled Chicken Wonton Taco stuffed with spicy chicken and Chili’s is now serving Ranchero Chicken Tacos.

Quick-service has picked up on the trend. KFC has come up with hot sauce-spiked Nashville Hot Chicken, a flavor profile so spicy that it comes with pickles to act “as soothing lozenges for your mouth.” Wendy’s is spotlighting a Jalapeño Spicy Chicken Breast Sandwich topped with fresh diced jalapeños, ghost pepper sauce and Colby pepper jack cheese. The jalapeño bun is also a cautionary red in color to let customers know that the heat is on.

Burger King is seeing strong sales with limited time only (LTO) spicy variations of its popular chicken fries. So far there have been three such flavors—jalapeño, buffalo and fiery.

Restaurateurs and convenience store retailers should make sure they know their customers before they jump into trends, Badaracco pointed out.

“If your customers tend to be conservative, you can go easy on the bold, unfamiliar flavors, but if they tend to be adventurous, don’t be afraid to go all out,” Badaracco said.

At Port St. Lucie, Fla.-based Town Star convenience stores, customers show that they’re hot for heat. Popular items from the Broaster Express menu offered in seven of the chain’s 18 stores include spicy fillets and wings, boneless Buffalo wings and Cajun popcorn, said Alex Davidovich, Town Star Holdings LLC’s executive vice president. Of the spicy varieties, Buffalo wings are the c-store’s best seller.

“For our customers that really like spicy food, Broaster Express enables us to give them exactly what they want,” Davidovich said.

The Broaster Express program, a distributor brand of ready-to-cook chicken coated with proprietary marinades, coatings and seasoning blends, was introduced in the stores in mid-July of last year. Already chicken sales make up between 8-10% of merchandise sales in the Town Star locations, he said.

Larger Town Star stores soon to be rolling out the Broaster program in its locations are projected to sell between $700-$1,000 worth of chicken per day, Davidovich said. Current smaller stores sell just shy of $300 on a daily basis, but can sell as much as $600 in a day during big events. This initial success with the Broaster Express program prompted Town Star to purchase five additional fryers, rolling out in its Orlando market stores.

But chicken doesn’t have to be fiery to be a customer favorite. Americans increasingly want their food to be portable and easy to eat on the go.

Burger King, for example, is introducing all-white meat breaded chicken rings. And Dunkin’ Donuts is testing a new chicken and waffle sandwich.

At Town Star, chicken tenders and potato wedges are sold in car-friendly cups priced at $3.49, or $5.99 for a mix and match of two.

Two of the top all-day sellers at Frawley Oil Co. stores are the easy to tote strips and Wing Ditties—on-the-bone drumettes—offered by Squawkers Chicken, a brand from Brakebush Brothers, said Jeff Hanson, operations manager for Frawley Oil, which has the Squawkers program in two of its six Wisconsin stores. Brakebush also regularly develops items that offer on-trend flavor profiles, such as recently available Tater Chip Strips and Sriracha Bites, which Frawley features as limited time offers.

“Squawkers is always offering different items so we can do different promotions all the time,” Hanson said. “If you’re not willing to try new things in foodservice to keep things exciting, you might as well walk away.”

The stores also use precooked chicken to top pizzas and seasonal salads.

“If we want to create a new item or learn how to prepare and make the most of an existing one, Brakebush has an in-house chef who will work with us,” Hanson said.

At both Frawley and Town Star stores, chicken sales are constant throughout the day. In the morning, Town Star does a chicken biscuit sandwich with house-made gravy. Locations also sell chicken tenders.

“The tenders do surprisingly well early in the day,” Davidovich said. “In fact, they’re as popular as our breakfast-oriented items.”

A variety of chicken items, usually three different ones at a time, are available at Town Star for grab and go from a countertop kiosk/warmer that takes up only about two-and-half-feet in width. For maximum freshness, the chicken is left out for only two hours.

“The kiosk doesn’t take a lot of space, but it generates a lot of sales,” Davidovich said.

Of course, well-executed comfort food always has its place and its following. On Wednesday at lunch time Frawley Oil’s stores offer a full chicken meal option. The meal includes two pieces of white or dark chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetable and a dinner roll and is available for grab and go.

When Frawley first introduced Squawkers, the company put out every form and flavor that was offered.

“But then we got to know what products our customers really wanted so we whittled down to the best of the best,” Hanson said.

Davidovich was already familiar with the Broaster Co. when he decided to add chicken to his foodservice menu. His father had successfully featured the brand when he owned and operated a number of convenience stores in Ohio back in the 1980s.

Fryers for the program are self-ventilating and self-filtering making them easy to use and maintain. Most of the Broaster products cook at the same temperature so the heat of the oil does not need to be adjusted up or down. The food is automatically lifted out of the oil after it is finished cooking to eliminate the possibility of burning.

Before coming under the Squawkers banner, Frawley had been using the products at one of its stores with a large deli presence. In addition to the quality of the fare, the company also appreciated the ease of preparation, which requires a brief warming in the oven and a quick crisp in the deep fryer.

“We chose to adopt the brand name because it is recognizable and sets us apart from other convenience stores,” Davidovich said. “It has gone over really well.”