Restaurant Business—along with Darren Tristano, president of researcher Technomic—called out chicken as one of the segments on the rise. In fact, RB suggested it as the next possible boom area in fast casual, following in the footsteps of better burgers and DIY pizza. But we’re not talking traditional fried chicken or wings. We’re talking chicken fingers.
Concepts such as Zaxby’s, PDQ and Raising Cane’s all saw sales and unit counts increase in 2015, according to Technomic’s Top 500 report. So this sparked some discussion amongst the millennials in the RB office (most of whom happen to be women). And outside of one oddball, the consensus was an overwhelming love for the fried fingers. So what is it about the staple that jives with our millennial minds? Why are we so excited that these chicken finger concepts continue to grow, given that most trend reports say millennials want better-for-you options all the time? (FYI, no one wants to eat healthy all the time.)
Hint: There are some stealable ideas that operators can take from these singularly focused specialty chains.
Focus on handmade
There’s a big difference between nuggets and fingers—and any millennial will rattle off that distinction between something that feels like a processed puck and a piece of white meat that’s breaded and fried. Chains such as PDQ and Slim Chickens promote that their signature fingers are hand-breaded, too. So while it is fried—thus not a healthy item—the focus on quality ingredients and processes strikes a positive chord.
Chicken fingers are a solid car snack that can be eaten on the run. In fact, they are good for any meal on the go. That’s a distinct advantage that chicken fingers have over wings—the mess factor. The scuttlebutt around the office is that it’s easier to keep your dignity while noshing on fingers, versus constantly having to have a napkin on hand to eat wings (or any chicken off the bone, really).
Most importantly: Dipping sauces
Most of the chicken finger chains offer a range of dipping sauces, many of which are made in-house. After all, chicken fingers are the perfect size and shape for dunking. The result is twofold.
One, it adds a level of customization for the diner—and puts choice in the diner’s hands, not the staffers’ behind the counter. Whether you’re a ranch lover (that would be me), a fan of sweeter honey mustard, a craver of spicy or a fanatic of something a little funkier, chicken fingers are the ideal conduit for those sauces.
Secondly, it allows a restaurant to have a cheffy edge without alienating seekers of more traditional flavors. It’s a relatively low-risk way for R&D to experiment with flavors and really understand the preferences of its core demographic.
Focus—but not too much
These growing chicken finger chains have done a great job of focusing on the fingers without pigeonholing themselves. Thus, they aren't likely to follow the same fate of the many failed cupcake shops, which were too hyperfocused. The chicken concepts instead tout their signature tenders but also offer salads and other sandwiches in hopes of countering that veto vote. Plus, most pair the hand-breaded chicken with hand-cut fries, showing the attention to quality persists throughout the menu.
Millennials aren’t just after the latest, greatest food trend. Most of us grew up eating chicken fingers. And while the sauces on the side may add a modern spin, most of us like to be reminded that food doesn’t have to be fancy or precious all the time. Comfort foods can be a big seller, too.