Diversifying the Foodservice Menu

ChickenWith beef prices continuing to rise, poultry remains the protein of choice for many Americans. And, with the flexibility of chicken, this means ample opportunity for daypart-spanning sales.

By Marilyn Odesser-Torpey, Associate Editor.

Since introducing the Charley Bigg’s Chicken and Sauce program into two Friendship Food Stores six years ago and four more two years ago, Kevin Bible, foodservice district manager for the Fremont, Ohio-based chain, has seen inside sales in these stores grow by 20-25%.

“The fresh fried chicken program has set us apart from other convenience stores, giving Friendship Foods an identity and making our stores destinations,” Bible said. “Customers can smell the chicken at the pump and that gives them a reason to come inside.”

Tenders are the No. 1 best seller throughout the day. “They’re the perfect grab-and-go, eat-in-the-car food,” Bible said. A 99-cent per piece price point helps the stores to sell a lot of them. In February alone, the six stores sold over 20,000 tenders.

Four of the stores that are located in residential neighborhoods, instead of truckstops, have also built strong dinner daypart businesses for their bone-in chicken meals. Customers are attracted by the quality/price value Friendship Food offers. “An eight-piece meal that would cost $20 at KFC is $14 at our stores because we don’t have the same overhead as the quick-service restaurants,” Bible explained.

Furthermore, the introduction of the fried chicken did not cannibalize sales from Friendship Foods’ existing Schmidt’s Bahama Mama Hot Dog or Hunt Brothers Pizza offerings.

“In fact, it’s just the opposite,” Bible said. “Now customers have a reason to come in three times a week instead of two.”

Targeting New Business
At Meyer Oil, the Teutopolis, Ill.-based operator of 13 Mach 1 convenience stores, chicken heads up a strong foodservice menu. At the chain’s store in Fairfield, Ill., tenders are No. 1 for sales (the value promotion here is five tenders for $4), but General Manager Dave Linder has his eye on the dinner daypart for future growth of bone-in chicken. He is planning to target daily specials for dinnertime hours and develop a loyalty program for take-home meals.

At Mach 1, bone-in chicken is also a popular choice for catering orders. Linder noted that the store regularly receives orders for between 50-100 pieces during holiday and high school graduation times.

To keep the menu fresh and reduce shrink, the store’s kitchen manager uses a recipe book from Champs Chicken to create variations on the core items. Some examples from the book include fried chicken salad and chicken pot pie.

Linder is a strong believer in aggressively promoting the foodservice business. He has used flyers in local newspapers and coupons targeted to zip codes. He varies the offers to keep the excitement level high. Scan data on every item from a single tender to an entire meal make it easy for him to track the success of various promotions.
While hot food sales are key, customers also like their chicken on the go. Since introducing the Champs Chicken program in one of his Northsider Convenience Stores in Appleton, Wis., last December, many customers have come in asking for cold leftover chicken. Company President Steve Rosek now has his staff prepare extra product to meet the demand.

“In response to the customer requests, we have the cold chicken pieces waiting for them as early as 9:30 a.m.,” Rosek said. “Customers like to pack them in their lunch boxes and just enjoy them as a high protein cold snack in the mid-morning as well as the mid-afternoon.”

Hot-from-the-fryer bone-in wings, boneless dippers and tenders also sell well throughout the day as snack-friendly finger foods. Rosek agreed with Linder that the fried chicken program complements rather than cannibalizes his other foodservice sales. “Having freshly prepared chicken is important to us because it shows we are committed to foodservice,” he said.

The Champs Chicken program has helped to boost foodservice sales for Northsider, and Rosek said he expects the biggest growth to come in the summer, traditionally his busiest time of the year. To increase his dinner business, he plans to do more in-store and on-pump signage.

Strong Outlook for Chicken
According to the National Chicken Council (NCC), chicken consumption per capita has increased nearly every year since the mid-60s, while red meat consumption has steadily declined. In a national 2012 survey of adults from more than 1,000 households conducted for the NCC, 86% of the respondents said they ate chicken over a two-week period, 68% of them said they bought chicken from a restaurant or other foodservice establishment over that same period.

While the respondents said they purchased chicken 5.2 times over that two-week period, those purchases were made from a restaurant or foodservice establishment only 1.8 of those times. The rest were made from supermarkets/grocery stores.

And, in its “Center of the Plate: Poultry Consumer Trend Report” released in April, Chicago-based Technomic found that while 25% of consumers said they expected to increase their chicken purchases from supermarkets/grocery stores over the next few months, only 13% said they expected to increase their chicken purchases from restaurants.

To get more of that chicken business, foodservice operators have to get a little creative. More than half of consumers (55%) surveyed said they want restaurants to offer a greater variety of chicken entrées.

Technomic Vice President Darren Tristano also suggested that operators “look for opportunities to promote more poultry for breakfast, appetizers and snacks.”
Poultry, Tristano noted, is trending up for breakfast, snacks and appetizers at restaurants. Specifically, breakfast entrées featuring chicken are up by 16% since 2011.
In addition to breakfast, poultry is also a viable alternative to beef and pork for lunch and dinner, the Technomic report showed. Three out of 10 consumers said they would order poultry-based substitutes for beef or pork during these dayparts. And 61% of consumers said they would be interested in trying chicken entrees with new or unique flavors and sauces.

Wide Appeal
Tristano pointed out that chicken can appeal to a wide range of consumer demographics based on how it is prepared. Fried chicken, for example, can appeal to consumers looking for an indulgence, while “naked” (non-breaded) grilled or air-fried chicken is usually perceived as more health conscious. Seasonings and spices can also run the gamut from kid-friendly mild to young adult bold.

NCC vice president and economist Bill Roenigk suggested that c-store operators take a cue from quick-service chains like Chick-fil-A and add a chicken biscuit to their breakfast and snack menu mixes. “It makes sense in light of the mini meals that more and more people are consuming at various times during the day,” he said.

Roenigk also noted c-stores can easily and economically get into the rotisserie chicken business without investing in a lot of cooking equipment by offering precooked product in a warmer during a specific 2-3 hour pre-dinner window.  “When customers come in the morning, offer the opportunity to reserve a rotisserie chicken for pick-up later in the day,” he said. “Or, offer a deal, say $1 off of a chicken with the purchase of gas to encourage program awareness and trial.” 

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