Chicken continues to gain momentum as a foodservice favorite. At the same time consumers, especially Millennials, are more discerning about the background and preparation of the chicken items they purchase.
Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
To find chicken that was fresh never frozen, organic, free from antibiotics and artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, consumers used to have to go to Whole Foods and other high-end markets.
But recently, McDonald’s announced that its popular McNuggets, a menu staple since 1983, are now made with 100% white-meat chicken with no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. Consumer packaged goods giant Campbell’s announced that it will be transitioning to antibiotic-free chicken over the next several years.
These companies are responding to increasing consumer demand for transparency in the foods they purchase. In a report released in June by Packaged Facts research firm, 60% of restaurant meat and poultry eaters said that “all natural” is important to them when selecting meat/poultry dishes at restaurants. Consumers also told the researchers that they want meat/poultry that has no hormones, antibiotics or preservatives.
Another survey, released in July by the National Chicken Council (NCC) underscored the fact that consumers are most interested in knowing that no antibiotics were used in the production of their food. More than half (57%) said they are also extremely or very concerned about hormone and steroid use, even though both are banned by federal law.
FRESH AND FAST
While transparency may be significant in gaining consumers’ trust, freshness, taste and price are still the major deciding factors for purchase, according to the NCC survey. At Donaldsonville, La.-based Popingo’s Convenience Stores, customers know that the chicken featured in the company’s proprietary foodservice program is fresh because they see it being made to order right in front of them. The chicken has developed such a loyal following that it accounts for 90% of the company’s total foodservice sales, said Justin Talbot, Popingo’s director of food services.
Five of Popingo’s 10 stores located in southeastern Louisiana have delis that feature chicken. Another store deli is expected to be added by the end of the year.
“Ninety-five percent of our customers are regulars and the staff knows them by name,” Talbot said. “They trust that everything we make is going to be both fresh and fast.”
Even the grab-and-go chicken doesn’t sit in the case for more than 15 minutes.
“We’re constantly frying chicken all day,” Talbot said.
While fried chicken tenders are the biggest sellers, a growing number of customers are ordering the grilled version, including in the Louisiana-staple po’boy sandwiches and salads. Grilled pulled chicken in homemade barbecue sauce is a popular choice among the daily lunch specials.
But customers aren’t just switching from fried to grilled. Talbot explained that overall chicken sales are growing and fried is just as popular as ever.
The stores are also using chicken to make a variety of different fresh sandwiches. They started out being priced at $3.99, but the company couldn’t keep pace.
“We can’t keep them in stock,” Talbot said.
The demand for chicken is so great at Popingo’s that the stores are adding a fried tender sandwich for breakfast.
During the lunch daypart, Popingo’s offers plate lunches with two pieces of chicken, two sides and a soft drink for $9.99. Talbot reported that this is one of the highest selling items on the menu. Between meals, fried chicken livers and gizzards are a favorite snack.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., customers can purchase an eight-piece dark meat bundle with a two-liter soda for $5.99.
Talbot said it is not unusual to sell 50-piece orders on weekends. Churches and factories in the area have placed orders for up to 600 pieces for special events.
Information from research company Datassential shows that 64% said they were interested in fried chicken strips/nuggets from convenience stores. Chicken/turkey burgers also have a high level of interest with 46% of convenience store customers.
Ten percent of consumers who bought prepared food on their last c-store visit bought chicken strips/nuggets, said Ann Golladay, senior project director at Chicago-based Datassential. One-fifth of them ate that chicken for breakfast.
Golladay suggested that the best way to satisfy consumer demand for variety in the chicken category is with condiments, which can also work across a variety of other platforms, including hot dogs, sandwiches and burgers.
Limited time offers, seasonal items or menu items that rotate are other great ways to add some variety to the menu without having to regularly keep up a larger inventory, Golladay noted.
“Operators could have a ‘special’ or an item that changes daily or weekly to offer up some variety without making changes to their regular menu and regular inventory,” Golladay said.
In-store chef-prepared chicken dishes are almost always included on the deli hot bar at Sendik’s Fresh2GO convenience store in Bayside, metropolitan Milwaukee, Wis. Two more with delis are scheduled to open soon in the Wisconsin cities of Hales Corners and Greendale.
Sendik’s menu is a regular chicken experience. On Mondays the offering is orange chicken breast. Wednesdays include chicken marsala. Saturdays offer barbecue pulled chicken and fried chicken.
The hot bar dishes are available beginning at 11 a.m., said Nicholas Bandoch, Sendik’s communications director. The delis promote fully-cooked Fresh2GO Family Meals for four, with two of the six varieties featuring chicken.
Available every day from mid-morning to 7 p.m. and most popular are the delis’ Amish rotisserie chickens.
“We sell upwards of five figures of these chickens every year just from the Bayside store,” Bandoch said.
Sendik’s also makes three types of chicken salads, sandwiches, including panini and chicken-topped pizza.
Customers at Sendik’s reflect the respondents in the surveys by Packaged Facts and the National Chicken Council as they carefully read the labels on the chicken products they are considering purchasing.
“We used to just label the products ‘chicken’ in the past, but now we know that our customers want to have more information on what they’re eating,” Bandoch said. “Now we let them know that we use natural, minimally-processed, never-frozen chicken that contains no artificial ingredients and was raised on farms in the USA.”