Bird is the Word
A Menu Mainstay Goes from Casual to Cutting Edge
We’re playing chicken, all over the menu, as this plucky poultry muscles bravely into the breach left by record-high beef prices. Learn why this long time mainstay is clucking with satisfaction at its top protein status.
You may not ever see a dramatic increase in chicken’s menu presence, but that’s because with a 97 percent penetration, there’s not much higher this bird can fly. As Datessential’s Mark DiDomenico says: “Chicken is so ubiquitous at this point that the only places not selling it are burger-only restaurants!” Although even at hamburger chains, chicken sandwiches frequently outsell beef. The chicken’s profile continues to rise as beef costs soar, featured ever more frequently in limited time specials, in fast food and fine dining, across every day part, in every region, and wrapping its feathers around chicken-centric concept restaurants.
And it’s going places it’s never been ... if you’re still thinking of a chicken sandwich as the healthier but lackluster cousin to a beefy burger, we hope you’ll think twice after reading how today’s sharpest operators are elevating the bird with a focus on free range and organic and innovating with unique ethnic twists.
“It’s the right category to be in, the only one of the top five animal meats that’s increasing in eating frequency,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD Group. Over the years, he says, each variation on chicken has had its moment in the sun, from nuggets, strips and wings to rotisserie, fried, and snack wrap. Today, he says, we’re less likely than before to feature it as a center-of-the-plate item, but the movement of chicken is into the sandwich, or as an integral part of a pizza or pasta dish.
Tyson Foods’ Justin Davis agrees: “The next big iteration is the ingredient chicken. Instead of offering a four-ounce chicken breast, operators can use half that amount to augment a pasta dish, load up a nacho and add to soups and salads.” He cites the beauty of cross utilization, in different formats from sandwich filets to handheld tenderloins to pulled and shredded. “There are so many ways to change up the product and have it be perceived as something new each time,” says Davis. “It’s a great flavor carrier, which makes it perfect for flavors like sriracha and aioli.” That uniquely positions chicken as an approachable entry point for ethnic dishes, says Tyson’s David Jetter, providing diners with a recognizable ingredient amidst an unfamiliar taste profile ... Asian chicken salad with ginger and rice wine vinegar, butter roasted chicken piccata, flame grilled chicken quesadilla, wings with Moroccan spice or Habanero citrus glaze are just a few on the growing list of menu possibilities.
Chicken has also effortlessly taken on the banner of healthy and natural, becoming a real power player in this space by going well beyond boneless skinless chicken breasts. “Health is now defined as more than low fat, calorie and sodium content, moving into antibiotic-free, organic and free range,” says Mary Chapman, senior director of product innovation at Technomic. “All types of operators are starting to highlight these aspects, but independents have a real advantage because of their purchasing flexibility.” She urges independent operators to consider forging relationships with local farmers, and including information about the chicken’s provenance on the menu for interested diners.
And while it’s not an authentic vegan offering, chicken still crosses boundaries more easily than other meats. “There are vegetarians/flexitarians who draw the line at meats but will eat poultry,” says Wade Shelton, who recently opened his chicken-centric Pollo Norte restaurant (see right). “There’s definitely a wider audience for it.” Foodies take note: “Chicken,” muses Shelton, “is a highly addictive food if done right.”
Trends Come, Trends Go, But Chicken Still Rules the Roost
LEADING FLAVORS FOR CHICKEN ENTREES: spicy, Asian, onion, garlic, tomato, Mediterranean, bbq, Caesar, honey.
FASTEST GROWING FLAVORS: lime, bourbon, Hispanic, Thai, basil, ranch, mint, sweet flavors like maple, sriracha, red wine vinaigrette, aioli, caramel.
GROWING ON THE MENU: chicken piccata, garlic chicken, Asian chicken, sweet and sour, balsamic glaze.
STILL STRONG: plenty of wings at the bar and on the appetizer menu.
TRENDING: Southern-style chicken breast in a biscuit; chicken with waffles; retro resurgence; using the entire bird; thigh meat.
BEST USE OF CHICKEN ON THE MENU: Tilted Kilt’s new bourbon bbq and raspberry chipotle wing sauces; Brick House Tavern + Tap’s Southern-fried buttermilk chicken sandwich in Austin; Washington DC-based Nando’s African chicken (piri piri); Houston’s Peli Peli, roasted chicken basted with guava and seasoned with curry; buttery maple wings and bayou po' boy at Buffalo Wild Wings; chicken and waffles at Mimi’s Café (multiple locations); P.F. Chang’s ginger chicken; Applebee’s cedar grilled lemon chicken; Burger King’s Chicken Fries.
FREE THE BIRD, BUT CUSTOMERS ARE WILLING TO PAY FOR IT: Recent research shows one-third of consumers would dig deeper into their wallets for chicken that’s natural, free-range, and contains no antibiotics.