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The week’s 5 head-spinning moments: Walmart and the world turning chicken

‘Welcome to new competition!’

I’m sitting at my desk, perusing the menu of Walmart’s newest concept, Walmart To Go. Should I try one of the Gourmet Hot Dogs, or would today’s special, a platter of dry-rubbed and smoked pork ribs, be more satisfying? “We recommend the ribs dinner,” says the app I’m using, which notes the price is only $6.47, and that includes two sides.

I have a choice of nine, ranging from Baked Potato Casserole to Crab Salad. I can try any or all of the others for an extra $1.29 each.

Then again, I could always pop for the pizza, a steal at $3.49 for a 7-inch pie.

It’s academic at this point. Fortunately for you, and unfortunately for a hungry editor with a perpetually tight budget, the lone Walmart To Go is in the retail giant’s headquarters city of Bentonville, Ark. The c-store/supermarket/quick-service hybrid quietly opened a month ago, with heads not whipping to attention until the supplier of the ordering app crowed about the food-service capabilities this week.

The free system enables customers to order and pay for their meal ahead of time for a speedy pick-up, a definite boon at lunch. Or they can grab dinner while stocking up on groceries and doing a fill-in shop until the next time they can hit a full-sized Walmart.

The elements of the food-service initiative aren’t new. But assimilating them under the Walmart brand name, with prices ranging from 99 cents to $6.47, could be a boon to chiropractors.

Chicken as food-cost kryptonite

If events of the last week are true compass readings, consumers will soon leave homes made of chicken to drive a car constructed from plump roasters to visit Chicken Coop Groceries, where they’ll buy soda and bacon made from pullets and capons. It’d be Phase II of the chicken-ization that began this week in restaurants, where the high costs of other ingredients are triggering the substitution of breast meat for substances that once seemed irreplaceable, never mind with poultry.

Consider the head-turning introduction last week of Domino’s latest product, a pizza that features pressed-together chunks of fried chicken in place of a crust. The new Specialty Chicken line was bizarre enough to merit jabs from the late-night talk show hosts.

They may be doing whole monologues on the resurrected Double Down, KFC’s over-the-top riff on a sandwich. Instead of being nestled between two slices of bread, slices of bacon and cheese are sandwiched between two deep-fried chicken fillets. In its earlier run, the Double Down was the poster product for menu excess.

Those two examples may be the extremes, but they’re hardly the only chicken substitutions to rotate noggins this week. Social media have been buzzing with speculation about the next incarnation of Taco Bell’s Doritos Loco Taco, the latest restaurant product to earn cult status. The actual line extension was the prior version, though with shredded chicken replacing the ground beef.

The list goes on and on: McDonald’s offering both a chicken and a beef version of its latest LTO; 7-Eleven adding chicken nuggets as an alternative to roller dogs and taquitos; Pizza Hut branching into wing sales systemwide; Ruby Tuesday, a chain known for burgers, pushing chicken fingers.

Part of the impetus is no doubt the cost of chicken relative to the price of beef, which is currently at an all-time high. But the relief is being tempered by chicken costs rising in concert with demand.

A break in the waffle onslaught?

This posting may be the only thing you consume today that isn’t available on a waffle. Though hardly a new phenomenon, waffles’ replacement of bread and wraps has picked up speed in recent months, culminating in Taco Bell’s Waffle Taco, White Castle’s waffle sandwiches and Dairy Queen’s switch from a cup to a waffle for its legendary Blizzard. 

But this week? No new batter hit the waffle iron.

But don’t mothball the maple syrup quite yet. Burger King’s chicken and waffles sandwich is still being tested, and Taco Bell continues to crow about its novel take on waffles and eggs. That effort was helped by a Citi Research study that found 33 percent of consumers prefer breakfast from Taco Bell than the morning fare at McDonald’s. And their favorite: The Waffle Taco, of course.

Full service lashes back

Limited-service restaurants have wrested breakfast away from coffee shops and other full-service places. But casual dining sees a morning opportunity that quick-service and fast-casual places would be hard-pressed to pursue: brunch.

On the Border is the latest casual chain to enter that arena, unveiling a new menu last week with entree prices starting at $5.99. Limited-service places might be able to undercut those prices, though not by much, and rare are the QSRs that serve alcohol at breakfast, never mind a $2 Mimosa or a $3 Bloody Mary, the signatures of On the Border’s brunch service. It’s a strong enticement “if coffee’s not your thing,” commented CEO Steve Clark.

Cosi’s painful candor

Restaurant executives usually assume an exuberant demeanor when they talk to investors. Not R.J. Dourney, the franchisee-turned-CEO of the Cosi fast-casual chain. “Let’s put this out there right away: over the past 12 years, we’ve lost over $200 million,” Dourney said in his first conference call with analysts.

He proceeded to outline a plan for turning around the concept, whose losses roughly doubled to $4.1 million for the fourth quarter of 2013. It wasn’t good news for Cosi employees; Dourney is closing the chain’s Illinois 20,000-square-foot headquarters and relocating the offices to Boston, in the heart of what he described as the concept’s strongest market.

He also pledged to close more stores, though he didn’t specify how many.

Not all of his plan amounts to retrenchment. Dourney says he plans to borrow the profitable practices of his former employer, the New England franchisee called Hearthstone and roll them systemwide. He did not divulge details on what those practices might be.

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