The poultry purchase

Restaurants traditionally rely on chicken and turkey to be menu profit makers. Usually in good supply and always a good buy in relation to other proteins, operators often turn to poultry to keep costs in check when red meats and seafood skyrocket. But that strategy may be dampened in the months ahead. Chicken production is down and feed costs are up, making it more expensive to buy and menu the bird. Prices are expected to remain higher over the next several months. Although turkey production has increased, supplies are expected to be relatively tight throughout 2007, predicts the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

Turkey steps up to the plate 

Research by the National Turkey Federation reveals that people would order turkey if menus offered more choices. A whopping 77 percent of respondents in the 2005 survey who said they don’t order turkey said they would if it were just on the menu.

The survey results were enough to convince Jack Civa, director of foodservice marketing for Carolina Turkey, to hire a director of innovation and take a fresh look at turkey as a source of ideas. “We’re currently in the middle of a muscle profiling project, dissecting the bird and trying to figure out ‘chef’s cuts’ we can take out from muscles we haven’t used before.”

Turkey is already seen as a healthy comfort food. Civa’s challenge is to make it trendy and convenient as well. Working with restaurant chefs, Carolina Turkey is nearly ready to debut a package of fully cooked turkey thigh lobes in a Hispanic-style marinade. It can be heated in five minutes, then shredded and sauced much like carnitas. Or the kitchen can give the thighs a personal stamp with a slightly different prep. “Operators want to feel that when they serve a product, it has the look and taste of turkey that’s cooked fresh in the back of the house,” Civa says.

Carolina Turkey, Perdue and Jennie-O already offer some products to help operators get out of their turkey rut. The turkey mignon—a bacon-wrapped whole muscle breast section—and turkey breast medallions are making inroads as elegant entrees. Turkey burgers and value-added products with on-target flavors (along the lines of their chicken cousins) are also winning menu real estate. These include oven-roasted breasts with honey, maple, Buffalo, Cajun and smoked hickory and mesquite infusions. Turkey breast products rubbed and crusted with various ingredients are another trend; cornmeal, garlic pesto, sun-dried tomato and cracked peppercorn are a few examples.

Big Birds

An average chicken today weighs a pound and a half more than the average chicken two decades ago. But from a feed conversion standpoint, it’s actually more expensive to grow the birds bigger, explains Bill Roenigk, Senior VP of the National Chicken Council. The efficiency of handling bigger birds at the processing plant, though, offsets the cost of the feed. 

But bigger isn’t better for everybody. Mike Sobel, director of purchasing for Zaxby’s, a Southeast chicken chain, says big tenderloins don’t fit his sandwich buns, and the meat can be tough and take longer to cook. Suppliers will cut it down to size, but that’s not an appealing option for Sobel. “The meat just isn’t as palatable.”

Specifying these smaller “select” pieces over line-run products is pricey. Sobel pays an average of 52 cents extra for his cuts. What worries him most, though, is availability. “There are only so many tenders of that size range to go around.”

If you’re stuck with the bigger birds, Gregory Fatigate, associate dean of culinary arts at the CIA, suggests brining them for 12-24 hours in a salt solution enhanced with citrus or citric acid. It adds prep time, but helps with taste and texture.

Sourcing it Right

When chicken fingers are the only item on your menu, it’s natural to take extra care in sourcing the best. “We buy 10 million pounds a year of just one product,” says Kathleen Wood, COO of Raising Cane’s, a 43-unit regional chain based in Baton Rouge. “When you have a single menu item, it’s very important to have a great vendor-partner relationship,” Wood explains. “It’s critical to keeping our supply chain moving efficiently and safely.” Here are Wood’s recommendations for forging loyal and profitable vendor partnerships:

Establish a shared vision. Wood invited her vendors to spend time at corporate headquarters and in several store locations to achieve absolute clarity on Raising Cane’s product specs and quality expectations. 

Communicate growth priorities. Through onsite visits, weekly conference calls and constant e-mails, vendors and distributors keep in touch with the purchasing team to stay ahead of the production curve and keep up with expansion plans. Raising Cane’s gets suppliers involved in R&D, testing products in the chain’s facilities and providing input on best practices.

Create strategic relationships. Being involved from the concept’s inception, vendors fully understand that they are in the strategic development business—not just the commodity business. “Our supplier partnerships provide stability and consistency. That inspires confidence in our franchisees, managers and investors.”

Understanding poultry specs 

Breaded, fully cooked chicken nuggets, tenderloins and filets (whole muscle boneless breast pieces) are available from a number of producers. They may go through several processes, including marinating, pre-dusting, battering, breading, frying and/or oven baking and quick-freezing. Here’s help on breading terminology from Perdue’s online poultry school.

Breading pickup refers to the amount of coating that adheres to the chicken
Lightly breaded—Up to 14 percent pickup
Breaded—14 to 30 percent pickup
Fritter—30 to 64 percent pickup
Croquettes—64 percent and higher pickup
Homestyle—Process by which a fritter-breaded product is flipped around to replicate a hand-breaded appearance

Breading or “cover systems”

Flour breading—Uses ground flours mixed with seasonings and starches to give a homemade look. Some companies add whole grain flours to the mix; others toss in seeds, spices and texture and flavor enhancers.

Cracker meal/crumbs—Made from flour and water baked into thin, cracker-like sheets that are then ground into crumbs for breading.

American breadcrumbs—Loaves of bread are dried and ground into crumbs that vary in size and texture, from fine to coarse.

Japanese-style crumbs—Also known as panko or J-crumbs, these are coarser, fluffier elongated crumbs that form a soft but crunchy coating.

Two other systems are extruded crumbs and combinations. Extruded crumbs are produced by heating batter in a pressurized system. The hot batter is pushed out or extruded through a small pipe and water is siphoned off, creating a crumb. Chicken companies will also deliver combinations of these cover systems to meet your specifications. Plus, the coatings can be accented with a range of flavor profiles—from mellow Parmesan to hot and spicy Cajun.

Processing specs

Tumbling is used to add moisture and flavor to breaded and other fully cooked chicken products. First, the raw pieces are placed in huge metal tumblers equipped with paddles to provide agitation. Next, a marinade is added and a vacuum is pulled to add pressure. The vacuum speeds the absorption of liquid and helps break down the muscle fibers to further tenderize the meat. The contents are then rotated until the solution is fully absorbed.

Packaging and proper handling are key to extending the shelf life of fresh poultry. Refrigerated chicken is shipped from the processor either packed in ice (wet tare) or dry in controlled vacuum packaging (CVP)—also referred to as controlled atmosphere or reduced oxygen packaging. The plastic bags are both vacuum and gas-flushed with CO2 to lower the oxygen content, which retards bacterial growth and spoilage. The bags are then heat sealed, and the resulting dry pack eliminates dripping and the threat of cross-contamination while prolonging the shelf life and quality of the chicken.

This more sophisticated packaging has spurred innovation in fresh chicken products. Perdue’s patented RPC (refrigerated portion control), for instance, features a special breed of meatier chicken with an 18-day shelf life from date of pack. Shelf life has to be properly managed. Once the chicken reaches your restaurant, follow these steps to maintain food safety and quality and prolong shelf life:

  • Off the truck, check chicken temperature by placing a thermometer between two CVP bags, making contact with the product inside. The thermometer should read 32°F, plus or minus one degree.
  • Immediately after delivery, transfer the chicken to the cooler. The temperature in the cooler should be kept at 28 to 36°F.
  • After a bag is opened, the chicken should be used the same day or returned to the cooler and used within 24 hours.

Two Wing Men Face Off

Mark Simonds
President, Wings Over Agawam, Massachusetts
21 locations in eight states and Washington, D.C.

Andy Howard
Executive VP of marketing, purchasing, R&D Wingstop, Dallas, Texas
300 locations in 27 states

When your concept is all about chicken wings, smart buying is key to profitability in a time of rising prices. A pair of operators share their strategies. Describe your specs for chicken.

Howard: Our business is 90 percent wings. About 75 percent of that is bone-in fresh wings, sized at nine to 11 per pound. Two years ago we added boneless wings to bring in more women and kids; these account for 15 percent of our business. The boneless “wings” are actually frozen battered breast strips; we worked with Pioneer to develop the proprietary breading and they are processed by Pilgrim’s Pride, which supplies about two-thirds of all our chicken. Peco Foods is our chicken vendor in the southeast and California. 

Simonds: We go with manufacturers who spec according to our size requirements—jumbo bone-in wings and boneless, battered wings. House of Raeford is our primary vendor for boneless wings, which are actually chicken tenderloins. Sanderson Farms sells us our bone-in wings, first and second joint only. Both products are purchased fresh.

What challenges do you face today?

Howard: The corn-ethanol issue is the top challenge. We saw where the market was headed when we added our boneless wings; these help control food costs because prices don’t fluctuate as much for breast meat as they do for wings.

Simonds: Prices are going through the roof. Everyone keeps blaming it on corn, but it’s not the only reason. Chicken processors were getting too low a price for their product, so they cut back on production and caused a shortage.

How are you dealing with price increases?

Howard: We locked in prices for two years. Instead of just playing the market, we set a floor and ceiling price with our vendors. This helps narrow the gap and flattens our food costs. We try to buy right and price [our menu] right so we give our customers the good value they expect.

Simonds: We also fashioned a contract with a high and a low—a cap and a bottom. The cap is set at 24 percent and we finagled the low end to be the same. Wholesale prices have stayed at the high end. We held out as long as possible, but will probably be raising menu prices about 3 percent. Customers will accept it, because they see how high chicken is in the supermarket.

Can you share some purchasing tips?

Howard: To control high food costs in this volatile market, negotiate locked-in pricing. And if your cost of business keeps getting higher, it may be time to start charging more.

Simonds: We added a dark meat product—popcorn chicken—to level the market. Prices for dark meat are more stable than for white meat. Our popcorn chicken debuted in July in two test stores.

What’s the future look like?

Howard: We’re always looking at new flavor profiles. Asian is a possibility down the road. And we’re thinking of boneless wings in a salad. Our sales have been up 16 quarters in a row, and we have about 250 more locations under development.

Simonds: Expansion is top of mind; our goal is to open one store a month, reaching 63 locations by 2010.

Evolution of a chicken product 

At Moe’s Southwest Grill, an Atlanta-based regional chain specializing in freshly made, customized burritos, signature ingredients are a big selling point. “We worked with one chicken supplier to develop the right cut size, flavor profile, marination level and packaging,” says Daniel Barash, senior director of operations and product development for Moe’s. “Our customers can choose any protein in any of our menu items, but 60 percent choose chicken.” Barash goes through these steps to make sure that the fresh, boneless, marinated chicken breast he buys (shown cooked, left) is consistent in quality and taste.

1. Check specs at plant. Start at the processing end, examining the chicken to make sure the cut size, flavor profile, color, texture and aroma meet standards. If something is off, Barash suggests working with the supplier’s food scientists to reformulate.

2. Store the product. Place chicken under the same storage conditions used at your locations to test how it holds up.

3. Test in store. Using a small sample (20 pounds), cook chicken for varying lengths of time in several menu applications; taste for flavor, texture and consistency.

4. Ramp up operations. Go from 20 pounds up to 500 or even 1,000 at one store. Does product perform well at that volume?

5. Add product to inventory. “We contract out 8 million pounds of chicken a year,” Barash reports.

Poultry ideation

Oven Roasted Chicken with barley, napa cabbage, curry-mustard jus roti
At Sola, an American bistro in Chicago, chef-owner Carol Wallack cooks contemporary cuisine with Asian and Hawaiian accents. Here, the former L.A. surfer gal brings Pacific Island flair to a crisp, golden chicken breast plated with a bold curry-mustard sauce. It goes for $16 on Sola’s dinner menu.

Smoked Jerk Turkey Thighs with banana ketchup
Susan Goss, chef-partner in Chicago’s West Town Tavern, likes the way turkey thigh meat stands up to assertive seasonings. Here, she brines and smokes the thighs, then finishes them off on the grill, brushed with a zesty jerk sauce. The finishing touch is a sweet-hot condiment made with sauteed bananas, citrus juices and lots of spice.

Mandarin Minced Squab
Squab, a young pigeon, has been bred for centuries in China, but now is raised commercially in California. The meat is richer and moister than chicken but just as versatile. At the Mandarin Restaurant in San Francisco, the kitchen chops and marinates the boneless squab, then stir-fries and serves it Chinese-style in lettuce leaves sprinkled with crushed rice noodles.

Chicken with Almond-Pomegranate Sauce 
Mediterranean is the focus at San Francisco’s Medjool restaurant and this “Medjool family recipe” is one of the menu’s signature tapas. Boneless chicken is dusted with distinctive seasonings, then napped with a thick, almond-pomegranate sauce to create a rich, complex dish that embodies Mediterranean flavor.

Chicken Club Quesadilla
Daniel Barash, senior director of operations and product development for Moe’s Southwest Grill, specs a
mild citrus marinade for the chicken breast that goes into his fajitas, burritos, tacos and nachos. “We attract a lot of kids and don’t want it too spicy,” he says. New on the menu, this quesadilla is a hearty combo of chicken, bacon, cheese, beans and tomatoes.

Chicken Paillard with truffle vinaigrette and shaved mushrooms
Outside Bottega’s door in Birmingham, Alabama, grow edible flowers and herbs the kitchen staff harvests. “It doesn’t matter how simple the dish, if you use great, seasonal ingredients it’s a winner,” says chef-owner Frank Stitt. For this best seller, sauteed breast cutlets are topped with arugula, Parmesan shavings and a light mushroom sauce.

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