The beauty of chicken is it has near-universal appeal and you can do so much with it. This simple protein can be transformed into a wide variety of menu items ranging from ethnic favorites such as Italian, Mexican, Asian and Greek offerings to American favorites such as chicken fingers and strips, nuggets, wings, bone-in fried chicken and boneless fried chicken breasts for sandwiches, sliders and salads.
Chicken’s naturally mild flavor and soft texture allow it to easily absorb marinated flavors, sauces and spices, making it an all-purpose versatile protein that can cross all meal and snacking dayparts. Beginning with breakfast, there’s fried chicken breast on a biscuit, English muffin or roll with or without an egg. For hot lunches and snacks, convenience store operators can offer chicken quesadillas, chicken parmesan plates or subs, and grilled chicken sandwiches and sliders with a large variety of sauces, cheeses, toppings and bread styles that can create endless menu offerings.
And, of course, there are the ubiquitous fried or speed-oven-cooked chicken wings and fingers with a variety of sauces that can create so many options for customers, from the hot and spicy to the sweet and savory. These hot grab-and-go items do well in c-stores because once cooked, they can be held several hours in good temperature-controlled merchandisers, according to the experts. Chicken also can be incorporated into other menu items such as pizzas, veggie and rice bowls, wraps and salads.
Despite consumers’ aspirations for healthier fare, breaded and fried chicken continue to be the most popular menu items by far. One need only look at the success of fried chicken items at national quick-service restaurants (QSRs), such as Chick fil A, KFC and McDonald’s.
Regional players are also winning with fried chicken, including Raising Canes, whose success hinges on a wide variety of “fresh, never frozen” chicken finger meals; or Zaxby’s, which offers chicken all ways including Chicken Fingerz, Traditional or Boneless Wings, sandwiches, Zalads and Zappetizers, along with nine sauces ranging from Wimpy and Tongue Torch to Nuclear and Insane. Then, there are Bojangles’ and Popeyes, two regional QSRs that specialize in southern fried chicken, biscuits and all the fixings.
The recent return of Burger King’s Chicken Fries — as a result of an onslaught of social media pressure after the fast feeder nixed the item from its menu two years ago — is another example of America’s love affair with fried chicken. “Demand for this product is so fanatical that we asked ourselves, ‘Who are we to get in the way of our guests having Chicken Fries?’” Eric Hirschhorn, Burger King’s chief marketing officer for North America told USA Today. At its peak, Burger King was seeing one tweet every 40 seconds about Chicken Fries, as well as some dedicated Facebook pages and Twitter accounts lamenting the loss of the beloved menu item and hoping for its return. Alas, customers got their way.
With so many QSRs and limited-service restaurants (LSRs) executing high-quality chicken programs that have fanatical fans, where does this leave convenience stores?
There are myriad opportunities, according to Convenience Store News’ How To Crew panel, for operators that make a strong commitment to their programs, and focus on quality and portable items ideal for c-store customers on the go.
“Doing chicken right takes commitment to equipment, labor, ingredients and merchandising,” said Ed Burcher of Burcher Consulting, a member of the CSNews How To Crew. “At the end of the day, portable, handheld menu items will win for most convenience store guests, and from what I have seen, while people talk grilled and rotisserie, they buy crispy!”
Because a preponderance of c-store foodservice items are consumed immediately, it’s important that the chicken not be too messy or difficult to eat and that the packaging is well thought-out, making it easy for customers to eat on the go, according to fellow How To Crew member Mathew Mandeltort, corporate foodservice manager for distributor Eby-Brown Co. LLC. Some new menu items to consider include chicken and waffle sandwiches, chicken nugget skewers, and popcorn chicken or chicken strips served in paper cups or cones, he said, noting that more adventurous fare could include Korean fried chicken or chicken coated with different crusts and batters such as Panko, potato chips, ramen, coconut, parmesan cheese or beer batter, depending on the region of the country and local demographic preferences.
FRESH OR FROZEN?
Because freezer-to-fryer or freezer-to-oven chicken products — as well as the equipment used to prepare them — have improved so much in recent years, there are many more easy-to-prepare chicken menu options available to convenience store operators today.
Par-cooked, sometimes called pre-cooked, individually quick-frozen (IQF) chicken is available either breaded or unbreaded, giving operators many options to choose from, noted Larry Miller, principal of foodservice consultancy Miller Management & Consulting Services and a How To Crew member.
The beauty of cooked IQF chicken is it allows operators to pull out one, five or 10 pieces of chicken without any of them being stuck together, according to one retailer member of the CSNews How To Crew. “You can use fryers, high-speed convection ovens or impinger ovens to heat them.”
While admittedly the experts agree there is a discernible taste and texture difference between fresh breaded and prepared chicken compared to frozen pre-cooked options, most do not recommend convenience stores handle raw chicken in the stores due to food safety and sanitation concerns. For those who insist on executing fried chicken programs from scratch, the experts stress that program training and execution must be flawless, and management must be laser-focused on the program at all times.
“Doing any bone-in chicken is difficult with the only exception being wings. If you want to have quality, it needs to be at the very least raw individually portioned pre-marinated chicken,” the retailer said, noting that operators can certainly bring in raw chicken and marinate it themselves in-store “but it’s a very difficult program to do and to do consistently in all locations.”
With all the high-quality frozen chicken styles and options available to c-stores today that can make them competitive in the category, “it seems an unnecessary food safety risk to handle the raw protein,” the retailer added. The other advantage of all the frozen, cooked boneless items available, such as fingers, strips, wings and nuggets, “is they can be used in so many other menu items, expanding your offering without adding SKUs, which is a big plus,” he said.
The other challenge of from-scratch chicken programs is operators need ample production space in the store, skilled and well-trained labor and high customer traffic, as well as compelling sides such as macaroni and cheese, potato sides, corn or other veggies, biscuits and gravy, cole slaw and/or other cold salad accompaniments.
From-scratch chicken programs can yield high results for operators of high-volume stores with heavy evening traffic, but “to maximize store real estate, there should be seating and a drive-thru to grow volume to its highest level,” Miller said. “A store designed for chicken sales can offer fried, grilled, rotisserie and every imaginable chicken part or portion that would be in demand, depending on the demographics.”
Programs such as this typically require high-volume fryers under a fire suppression high-air-volume vent hood, according to Miller. Operators with less anticipated volume can use vent-less fryers.
Manufacturer licensed brands such as Chester’s, Krispy Krunchy or Broaster are other programs for smaller or less experienced foodservice operators to consider. “These companies can add a lot of value with training, local advertising, bulk savings, packaging savings and promotional offers for operators that are not large enough to develop their own brand,” Miller explained. “With low volume, the cost of packaging alone can put retailers at a severe cost disadvantage.”
The reason QSRs and LSRs “rule the roost when it comes to chicken away from home is they are perceived by consumers as chicken experts or specialists, which provides them with an aura of authenticity and quality,” said Mandeltort. For c-stores to succeed with chicken, “it’s all about the bird” and he noted that operators “need to deliver a great-tasting, flavorful chicken that’s moist and tender.”
MARKETING & MERCHANDISING
Because chicken is a low-fat protein, it has a tendency to dry out fast if overcooked or if it sits in a merchandising case too long, which makes it very important to cook and display freezer-to-fryer or freezer-to-oven chicken products according to manufacturer specifications.
Partnering with the right manufacturer — Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Brakebush or Cargill, to name a few — is one of the most important components of executing a strong chicken program because they can offer support and knowledge to ensure success, according to our How To Crew panel.
When it comes to in-store signage and menu board design, remember that “pictures and merchandising are worth a thousand words,” advised Burcher. “People buy with their eyes. A full display case with freshly prepared product says you are in the chicken business.”
While most experts agree marketing chicken programs is no different than marketing other foodservice programs, one retailer said sampling, especially of new menu items, is a way to create buzz and trial. Bundled meal offers and two-for promotions are also very effective for new hot food programs.
Serving a quality product that tastes great, however, is the best way to get repeat business. And don’t be afraid to offer something unique. “Do something different — KFC already sells KFC-style chicken,” said Mandeltort. For instance, he suggests operators also provide customers the opportunity to customize their chicken menu items with seasonings and sauces. “Chicken bar anyone?”