Whether it’s the product of a full, fried bone-in program, offered as tenders with sauces or featured in sandwiches, salads or as a pizza topping, chicken’s menu-spanning versatility and affinity for countless flavor profiles make it a natural for convenience stores.
By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor
When it comes to mealtime proteins, chicken still gets high marks from c-store customers looking for on the-go offerings.
According to Datassential’s 2019 SNAP report, 89% of consumers said they liked or loved chicken, which they enjoy throughout the day from chicken and waffles or chicken sausage on breakfast menus to chicken salad and sandwiches at lunch to chicken parmigiana and stuffed chicken at dinner.
As of January 2019, chicken flavors that have become familiar to and embraced by consumers in restaurants, convenience stores and grocery stores, included jalapeño pepper, teriyaki, salsa, chipotle, parmigiana, buffalo, bleu cheese, Alfredo, lemon pepper and Cajun.
Finding favor in chain restaurants and mainstream grocery stores were piccata, sriracha, smoky and honey barbeque, marsala, mandarin, jerk, garlic parmesan, Dijon, bourbon, chili lime, poblano and habanero pepper. And making their appearance in trendy restaurants and specialty grocers, popular flavors include tequila, cranberry, harissa, Korean barbecue, Nashville hot, tikka masala, Thai chili, spicy honey, curry, mole and even chimichurri.
In its monthly SCORES report testing new menu items and limited time offers (LTOs) from major chains and c-stores with consumers, Datassential found that purchase intent was high for fried chicken (bone-in and tender) combos with sides with intent to purchase in the upper 90s out of a top score of 100.
Some chicken-based entrees that also tested well were an apple harvest chicken salad with dried cranberries, sliced almonds, bleu cheese crumbles, ciderhouse dressing and cornbread croutons; warm bacon and spinach salad with sliced chicken and a chicken ciabatta sandwich with Monterey jack cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and pesto mayonnaise. At convenience stores, buffalo-chicken mac-and-cheese at QuickChek scored high, as did the chicken chimichanga at Holiday Stationstores.
At nine Kwik Trip and Kwik Star stores with cafés in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, chicken is no Johnny-come-lately to foodservice. They have been serving up bone-in pieces and boneless tenders as combos and meals for more than 20 years, said Paul Servais, the chain’s retail food service director.
“Chicken accounts for one-third of our hot grab-and-go sales,” Servais said. “In our café markets, we have a great reputation built on chicken.”
On weekends, the stores get a lot of catering jobs with big orders for family parties and other events. Every day, two-piece and three-piece meals with two sides are particularly
popular, especially around lunch time. Traditionally, bone-in pieces have been the big sellers for the stores, but Servais predicts that will change as customers look for more portable options they can easily eat in their cars.
Servais attributed the increasing sales of chicken in the stores at least partially to the healthy halo it has, even if it’s fried. It is also relatively inexpensive to purchase compared with red meat proteins.
Chicken is also a win for the stores because it encourages incremental sales, Servais noted.
“Tenders paired with potato wedges—it’s a no-brainer,” Servais said.
While only nine of the total 625 stores operated by Kwik Trip and Kwik Star have the on-site fried chicken program, all of the locations offer a variety of chicken-centric meals and snacks as part of their Hot Spot program: A rotating selection of six hot subs such as chicken tender melt with cheese and bacon, spicy chicken and garlic and herb chicken.
Five soup options may include chicken dumpling, chicken tortilla and chili soup with beans and chicken. There are three chicken toppings for specialty pizzas such as Buffalo, carbonara and barbeque. And chicken is featured in a variety of roller grill items such as roller bites, egg roll and empanadas.
Nouria Energy’s Lil’ Mart, which operates 116 locations in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut, offer the New England regional branded Roadies Chicken in five of its stores. For these stores, the fresh, fried chicken, which is marinated and double-battered on site, is a big category driver for foodservice sales, said Joshua Clark, the company’s category manager, fresh foods.
The stores without the on-site fried chicken program use pre-prepared chicken for its tenders and fries offering as well as for a varied selection of menu items including chicken wings and nuggets appetizers, barbeque chicken pizza, wraps filled with regular or cranberry walnut chicken salad and Chicken Cordon Bleu, Blazin’ Buffalo and Chicken Teriyaki classic and oven-baked hot subs.
“In many of our stores, chicken is our No. 2-selling item, right after pepperoni pizza, which nothing can beat,” Clark said. “Tenders are the staple and wings always rank in our top 10.”
Among the most popular items are fresh-sauced tenders on a stick for easy portability and eating on the go. As many as eight sauces are available including sweet chili, Buffalo, barbeque and ranch.
At the Roadies stores, chicken is available from the full-service counter and from the warmer for grab-and-go convenience. Most of the sales are from the warmer, he explained.
To ensure that the chicken is always fresh, it is labeled with the time it is prepared and replaced every two hours.
Customers can choose from three- six-, nine- or 12-piece tenders or bone-in chicken.
Customers can build their own meals with a variety of sides. Most pair their chicken with Jojo potatoes at the Roadies stores and French fries in the other stores.
“We don’t bundle our chicken into meals because our customers want to create their own meals their own way,” Clark said.
Sales are growing, particularly during the late morning to early evening “extended lunch,” he said.
Sales of its proprietary Cluckers chicken program are also increasing, especially at lunch time, at Portland, Ind.-based Pak-A-Sak, according to Linda Cavanaugh, the company’s director of foodservice. The program has been part of Pak-A-Sak’s foodservice category for at least 10 years.
For the program, fresh chicken strips, legs, livers and gizzards are marinated, battered and breaded with a “western” style of breading that is flavored with mild spices. Generally, customers order potatoes wedges that are also marinated, coated and fried, to accompany their chicken.
“We tried a chicken-strip sandwich a while back, but it didn’t take off,” Cavanaugh said. “Most people just want strips and dipping sauces.”
Cluckers offers a choice of four sauces—honey mustard, sweet and sour, ranch and barbeque. Cavanaugh noted chicken sales continue to grow, especially during the lunch daypart.
“Chicken is a comfort food that, if it’s done right and served fresh, always sells well,” Cavanaugh said.