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Birds flock to the menu

Although chicken and turkey costs are trending slightly upward, they are still better buys than red meat. These operators show how they maximize purchasing while minimizing poultry fatigue.

Value has been the name of the game in the restaurant industry for more than a year now. When it comes to center-of-the plate purchasing, value often translates to chicken and turkey. Chefs, operators and customers all perceive poultry as a value protein. It’s easy on the budget, adaptable to almost any flavor profile and fits into many menu categories—from appetizers to sandwiches, salads, pizzas and entrees.

Even as we inch out of the recession, the demand for poultry will remain strong. “As beef and pork prices have moved higher, chicken has become a more attractive protein to feature,” says Bill Lapp, commodity expert and founder of Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. “Demand peaks in summer, and higher demand means higher wholesale prices,” but the USDA predicts that while beef and pork prices may go up 10 to 15 percent in the months ahead, chicken prices should rise by only 5 to 10 percent. Turkey prices should follow suit.

Although chicken and turkey costs are trending slightly upward, they are still better buys than red meat. These operators show how they maximize purchasing while minimizing poultry fatigue.

Poultry pros

Andy Howard, Executive vice president of purchasing, Wingstop, Garland, Texas

Top buys: Bone-in chicken wings are Wingstop’s bestseller. We also purchase boneless wings—which are basically a large nugget cut from the breast meat—and boneless strips—also known as chicken tenders.

Challenges: Chicken wing prices were very volatile in 2009, reaching an all-time high during the 2010 Super Bowl. We’re seeing some relief now and experts feel they will dip as much as 10 percent in cost for the rest of the year. We locked in prices on boneless product for a year; it’s less expensive and helps us control costs.

Smart strategies: We source chicken from a few different vendors—Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride and Harrison—to assure consistent supply for Wingstop’s 450 locations. One company makes the proprietary batter and breading that goes on our boneless wings and strips. Our promotions have been pushing more boneless product to offset costs of the bone-in wings. And on Mondays and Tuesdays we’ve been offering a special deal on wings for 50 cents each. All our wings are tossed in a choice of nine sauces; original hot is still the most popular.

What’s next? We’re testing “gliders”—boneless chicken strips cut from the breast meat and menued as “slider” sandwiches. They’re served on small yeast rolls that we proof and bake in the restaurants.

Ray Martin, Corporate executive chef, BJ’s Restaurants, Huntington Beach, CA

Top buys: We use a lot of turkey for sandwiches and salads and chicken on pizzas and in entrees. Both are good protein buys. For our turkey items, we purchase a Butterball three-muscle breast in a 6- to 7-pound piece. We slice it in three thicknesses for different menu applications. Our Roasted Turkey Cobb Sandwich is BJ’s number one or two item in most markets. It’s built with roasted turkey breast, tomatoes, avocado, applewood smoked bacon, bleu cheese dressing, lettuce and Dijon mayonnaise on a toasted garlic cheese French roll. BJ’s Cobb Salad combines similar ingredients. Parmesan-Crusted Chicken with lemon sundried-tomato sauce is another favorite; it starts with a whole-muscle chicken breast that we pound thin and marinate in-house.

Challenges: I’m adamant about consistency—our menu items have to be the same system-wide in 95 stores. To offer quality turkey, we look for a clean label—the shorter the ingredient list, the more natural the product. New technologies make it possible to have turkey that’s safe and tender with the addition of just sea salt and water—no sodium phosphates or nitrates.  

Smart strategies: We buy from several distributors to meet our needs in every market. To spec product, we deal directly with a poultry company and they suggest a supplier. Butterball developed a fresh, white meat turkey burger for us and Tyson, a boneless chicken wing. 

What’s next? Two new chicken pizzas are in test. The chicken has to be cooked through first, before it’s heated on top of the pizza. Chicken is the most popular pizza ordered; we already have two on the menu.

Michael Hartnell, Executive chef, Le Caprice, New York City

Top buys: We purchase whole 5-pound chickens and cut them up in the kitchen. We use the breast for our signature Le Caprice Chicken Salad at lunch and pound it thin for the Chicken Milanese on our dinner menu. The wings are roasted and tossed into veal stock base; thighs and drumsticks are used for staff meals.

Challenges: Consistency in quality. The Bell & Evans chickens we buy are air chilled so they are never delivered wet. Air chilling encapsulates the flavor and makes the skin very crispy. This brand is very succulent, with firm flesh and bright color.

Smart strategies: Whole chickens are $1.50 a pound, while cleaned boneless breasts are $3 or more. When we’re doing a big function, we’ll order the breasts, otherwise, we do the labor ourselves. I order all my poultry and meat from Pat LaFrieda, a premier supplier in New Jersey.

What’s next: Our guests look at chicken because it’s a healthier option—they’re not ordering it to save money. But it has to be tasty. My goal is lots of flavor without the fat. For our Le Caprice Chicken Salad, I remove the skin after cooking. I’d like to add more seasonal chicken dishes to the menu for summer.

A signature endures: Malibu Chicken

Q&A with Keith Ortiz, Senior director of purchasing, Sizzler, Culver City, CA

How long has Malibu Chicken been on the Sizzler menu?

We opened in 1958, and have been serving Malibu Chicken since the early 1960s.

What chicken product do you purchase for this item?

It’s a chicken patty formed from the breast meat, breaded and shipped frozen to all 189 locations. We’ve been sourcing this product from Pilgrim’s Pride since Day 1.

Has the item changed over the years?

There’s been no formulation change. The patty is topped with ham, melted Swiss and a secret sauce made in-house. But we’ve changed the size and shape; it’s now larger and shaped more like a boneless breast than a round patty.

What other poultry products do you source for your menu?

We serve chicken wings on our hot appetizer bar, purchasing the bone-in second joint. Hibachi Chicken and Lemon Herb Chicken—both of which start with a 5-ounce whole muscle chicken breast—sell well too.

What are Sizzler customers looking for in a chicken item?

They want healthy dishes with great flavor. R&D is always trying to develop new chicken items that appeal to guests’ desire for healthfulness without neglecting flavor.

How do you hedge against price volatility in the poultry market?

We try to stay ahead by contracting with our suppliers for a minimum of a year, making a push to lock in prices when they’re low. I believe the Gulf oil spill is going to have a ripple effect on all proteins and we’re going to see some price volatility in the next six months.

Market report

Over the next six months, the export market for beef and pork is continuing to be strong, which will diminish the domestic meat supply and increase prices,” explains Bill Lapp of Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Nebraska. That should put chicken prices in a favorable light compared to red meat—after a sharp decline in chicken production in 2009, the supply is going up this year.

Bill Roenigk, VP and economist with the National Chicken Council in Washington, D.C., agrees. “Chicken production is up 2½  percent—the only meat that is on the increase. Plus exports of broilers to China and Russia—the two biggest markets—are down, adding up to greater domestic supply.” Roenigk points out that not only are more birds in production, they are coming in at heavier weights—a trend that can push the supply 3 to 4 percent greater than last year. He predicts that wholesale prices of whole birds could go 5 percent higher, and breasts, 5 to 10 percent higher, but even so, “on the protein side, chicken is a good deal.”

Turkey production, on the other hand, is projected to be 2 to 4 percent under 2009, reports Tom Elam, president of FarmEcon in Carmel, Indiana.  And as of January 1, 2010, frozen stocks were down 37 percent compared to the same date last year. “Total turkey supply (production + stocks) for 2010 is about 5 percent under 2009 and 11 percent below 2008,” Elam says. “Look for prices to trend higher for both whole birds and parts as the year wears on, with prices reaching 90 cents per pound or higher for frozen product by October, and fresh breast meat prices peaking at over $2 per pound this summer,” he adds. Again, price gains will be less than those for red meats.

Elam notes that restaurant demand for turkey has picked up. But the reduced supply means that retail and foodservice channels will be competing for the same products, keeping prices firm.

Suppliers deliver

Poultry producers are creating value-added products that help operators manage center-of-the-plate costs and differentiate their menus. Here’s what’s new at three major companies.

The Tyson Red Label line was developed to lower food costs by as much as 20 percent on core chicken menu items. The value-added products in the line—all made with chicken breast meat—include breaded and unbreaded filets, tenderloins, boneless wings, strips, tenders, patties and nuggets. “The line was designed based on the most popular chicken items on operators’ menus today,” says David Jetter, Tyson Food Service Corporate Chef. “That means we have products that fit traditional center-of-the-plate applications, handheld appetizers and sandwiches.” By finding opportunities to create efficiencies at every stage of development and production, Tyson was able to offer these products at a better price without sacrificing quality.

“We also wanted to ensure that these were turnkey items,” Jetter adds. “We did not want to increase sku’s in operators’ protein pantry, but give them the ability to switch out current products for Tyson Red Label products on menus.”

Perdue Chef Redi Chicken Sliders utilize unique portioning technology to create a 2.3-ounce individually frozen, ready-to-cook whole muscle breaded chicken breast filet.  The product is not only suitable for mini sandwiches, it can be used for chicken breakfast biscuits—a top morning choice on QSR and kids’ menus.

Research from Perdue found that operators experience a 9.5 to 14.1 percent increase in sales when they roll out sliders or mini sandwiches on the menu.

Maple Leaf Farms’ Duck Leg Florentine is a tenderized boneless duck leg filled with a blend of spinach and Parmesan cheese. It’s oven-roasted, frozen and delivered fully cooked for heat-and-serve convenience. This duck product can be a welcome poultry alternative for tapas, entrees, buffet service or catering, especially in a polished casual or fine dining setting. It appeals to customers’ more sophisticated palates.

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