Value on the plate
Count on chicken and turkey to pack a lot of punch for your purchasing dollars. Even though wholesale poultry prices have been volatile over the last year, these two proteins are still relative bargains. Cost-conscious customers seem to agree. Anecdotally, operators report that economy-minded patrons are trading down from steak to poultry.
"Chicken appetizers, snackers and bowls are seeing menu innovation and increased sales," says Monty Henderson, president of George's, Inc., a chicken supplier in Springdale, Arkansas. Several chains are also promoting chicken LTOs. His company saw a 20 percent jump in sales after KFC and Cracker Barrel introduced new items.
Since consumers have shown a preference for white meat, operators seem to gravitate toward chicken or turkey breast products. But demand for dark meat is slowly inching upward and recent menu launches have capitalized on thighs and legs. Check out these operators' signatures.
50 U.S. locations
Grilled Bone-in Chicken
This Guatemalan chain, famous for its marinated, pressure-cooked fried chicken and Latin sides, introduced grilled chicken in March "as a healthier option." The citrus-infused, grilled bone-in chicken features a blend of lime and orange juices, enhanced with red bell peppers, rosemary, oregano, cilantro and several "secret ingredients."
"We purchase all-natural, fresh chicken quarters, then marinate and hand-season them at each store," explains Lisken Kastalanych, VP of marketing. "Our biggest challenge is size—the quarters have to be consistent and not too large. There's a trend in the industry toward raising larger birds." Pollo Campero works with multiple suppliers for the right specs.
"Our goal right now is not to pass price increases on to the customer," says Kastalanych. A combo meal of a leg- or breast-quarter with sides like yucca fries or black beans and a drink runs $5 to $6.
Capriotti's Sandwich Shop
Las Vegas, Nevada
While more than 30 inventive sandwiches comprise Capriotti's menu, The Bobbie remains a customer favorite. Often referred to as "Thanksgiving dinner on a roll," this belly-filler includes white and dark meat turkey, cranberry sauce, homemade stuffing and mayo, all piled on a "secret-recipe roll" that's baked and delivered daily. Price is $6.50 to $12, depending on size.
"The Bobbie started as an LTO, but the response was so good, we never could take it off the menu," reports CEO Ashley Morris. Capriotti's purchases whole 20- to 24-pound turkeys from one supplier and the birds are slow-cooked for 12 hours at each location. "We buy about 250,000 turkeys a year," adds Morris.
Ted's Montana Grill
Pulled barbecue chicken is the star of Ted's Signature Salad, with spring lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, corn, green chilies, avocado, cheddar and cilantro in supporting roles. To menu this item, VP of supply chain Jeff Darby purchases 3- to 4-pound chickens. "What makes this a ‘signature' is we start with a whole chicken that's seasoned with fresh rosemary and garlic, then roasted on site several times a day, deboned and hand picked," he says. "Not many places are doing that." Since Ted's covers 20 states, Darby specs with several suppliers to keep chickens coming in consistently.
Although the chain is well known for its bison burgers and red meat items, "chicken hits a price point and healthy profile that people are looking for now," Darby believes. The $12 Signature Salad has soared to become the number two selling salad since its introduction a few months ago. And the new Snowcrest Chicken Sandwich is already the top-selling chicken sandwich.
Like others, Darby has experienced price challenges over the past year, but 2009 seems to be fairly stable so far. "Poultry supply is good and we're seeing typical seasonal price fluctuations—nothing drastic," he comments.
Don Strange of Texas, Inc.
San Antonio, Texas
3 locations and off-premise catering
Grilled White Wings
Not really a wing at all, this signature appetizer starts with a 6-ounce boneless chicken breast that's pounded and cut into 1-inch strips. Each strip is then filled with cheese and jalapeño, rolled up, wrapped in bacon and skewered, then marinated in equal parts white wine and olive oil before grilling.
"When we originally made them, we used white wing dove, a Texas game bird," explains Di-Anna Arias, director of sales for this catering and restaurant company. Hence the name, even though the cooks eventually switched from dove to chicken and scaled down to appetizer portions. Grilled White Wings continue to be the most requested item on the menu, with over one million sold since their "invention" in the 1980s.
Over the last 18 months, poultry producers have faced tough economic challenges. Since 1973, chicken production had gone up year over year, creating a more-than-ample supply. Plus, the export market took some hits. The result: "We no longer can sell all the chicken produced," says Mike Roberts of Perdue Farms, chairman of the National Chicken Council. Add inhistorically high feed and fuel prices, and the impact on profit margins is huge.
"This year, production estimates are 4 percent lower—an adjustment [the industry] made to make a profit," Roberts adds. That means operators can expect to pay higher prices—at least for the foreseeable future. That said, the current 80 cents per pound wholesale for chicken compares to over $1 in 1989.
Turkey is experiencing a similar scenario. Production ramped up from 2006 through 2008 to meet demand, but turkey producers have been losing money, claims Tom Elam, president of Farm Econ LLC in Carmel, Indiana. The supply is set through September and production is down about 10 percent from 2008. "Wholesale prices are strengthening now, to 80 cents for whole turkeys and $1 to $1.25 for breast meat," Elam reports. "But producers are still losing money. One reason: feed accounts for 70 to 75 percent of production costs and there's no relief in sight for feed prices."
Pointers from the poultry pros
Research chefs at chicken and turkey suppliers help foodservice customers find menu solutions. Sometimes those solutions turn out to be proprietary, value-added products; other times, a recipe that can be replicated chain-wide or in the kitchen of a single restaurant. These four pros shared their ideas and expertise—and cooked up a favorite dish—at a National Chicken Council seminar in San Antonio, Texas, this past May.
Trends: The left side of the menu is moving to the right—appetizers, sides and small meals are gaining in importance. Handheld items and retro dishes are also impacting R&D.
Challenges: Delivering on the price/value equation. People are willing to pay for quality if a product connects with them on an emotional level.
What's cooking: Reducing sodium by using different seasoning formulations and techniques. And a return to classics "with a twist," like this Chicken Osso Bucco (above) with Creamy Herb Parmesan Polenta; it substitutes chicken drumsticks for veal shank.
Trends: Chicken sandwiches are big, especially among QSRs that are trying to sell the same menu items as casual restaurants but at a lower price point. Right now, we're not looking for the next greatest flavor; it's better to just do the basics right. When the economy bounces back, everyone can get more creative.
Challenges: To create a menu item that uses many of the same ingredients a concept already sources.
What's cooking: New menu items with whole muscle chicken breast and boneless wings. Boneless thigh meat takes the cost per serving of this Sweet Citrus Glazed Chicken down to 77 cents.
Trends: California agricultural and health influences are migrating across the country. Consumers are questioning sodium, and as a result, salt-free fresh chicken is now available.
Challenges: Counteract the absence of salt with more intense flavors and higher heat. Specific Asian cuisines like Indian and Thai are getting more play.
What's cooking: Thin-sliced chicken breast cutlets are always a popular buy for restaurants. The Sauteed Spring Chicken Cutlets (above) showcase fresh California produce, such as baby artichokes, spring onions and asparagus.
Trends: Consumers are looking for supermarket products that bring the restaurant experience home. Operators are looking for products that bring value to the plate. Convenient shapes and formats for both turkey and chicken, including chunks, roasted strips and sandwich-sized pieces, add value and provide consistency.
Challenges: Portion control and cost control. By pre-portioning ready-to-use chunks, strips and filets, a restaurant kitchen turns out healthier serving sizes and speeds service.
What's cooking: Pre-sliced, oven-roasted turkey strips can be swapped out for chicken in entrée salads. Regional chicken dishes are also appealing; Chicken Chesapeake (right) combines chicken breasts with crabmeat in a light wine sauce. Start by cooking the "show side" of the breast first so you only have to flip once.