Restaurants winging it with chicken
by Monica Watrous
KANSAS CITY – With beef and pork prices on the rise, bird is the word for restaurant operators. Innovative new chicken concepts are debuting lately from Chick-fil-A, KFC, Domino’s Pizza and others.
A new platform from Domino’s dubbed Specialty Chicken features traditional pizza toppings, cheese and sauces layered on pieces of lightly breaded boneless chicken. Varieties include crispy bacon and tomato, spicy jalapeno and pineapple, classic hot buffalo, and sweet barbecue bacon. The launch represents Domino’s first since September 2012.
|Domino's Specialty Chicken features breaded chicken topped with traditional pizza toppings, cheese and sauces.
“Our pizza chefs have taken chicken to a whole new level, using our unique ingredients to create these four bold flavors,” said Russell Weiner, chief marketing officer for Domino’s. “There’s nothing quite like Domino’s Specialty Chicken on the market today.”
To appeal to calorie-conscious consumers, Chick-fil-A recently unveiled an improved grilled chicken recipe along with three new entrees: a grilled chicken sandwich, a grilled chicken club sandwich and grilled chicken nuggets. The chain said it tested more than 1,200 recipes and invested $40 million to develop a proprietary grill for the product, which is marinated with sea salt, lemon, garlic and herbs and seared on cast-iron grates to impart a backyard-barbecue flavor.
Rival KFC parent Yum! Brands Inc. has confirmed it is testing a new restaurant concept called Super Chix, featuring customizable sandwiches with a hand-breaded, peanut oil-fried chicken breast filet and such optional free toppings as jalapeños, hot pickles and haystack onions, plus several sauces, including honey mustard, smoky honey pepper, and sriracha sweet and sour. The concept, which opened this month in Arlington, Texas, also offers chicken tenders, fries, onion strings, salads and frozen custard. Yum! last August began testing KFC Eleven, an upmarket version of its fast-food chicken chain, with a menu of updated side dishes, salads, rice bowls, flatbread sandwiches and only boneless pieces of Original Recipe chicken.
|Yum! Brands is testing its Super Chix concept in Texas.
Taco Bell, another Yum! brand, is testing grilled chicken flatbreads in select Southern California locations. The chicken ranch variety includes avocado ranch dressing, shredded lettuce, cheese and strips of white meat chicken wrapped and grilled in a flatbread. The spicy chicken flavor has chipotle sauce rather than the avocado ranch.
Chicken also stars in a pair of new salads launched in March at Wendy’s. The Asian Cashew Chicken Salad features roasted edamame, red peppers and spicy roasted cashews, plus grilled chicken breast and mixed greens. The new BBQ Ranch Chicken Salad includes roasted corn, applewood-smoked bacon, grilled chicken and diced tomatoes.
This month at White Castle, a Chicken and Waffles sandwich debuted on the breakfast menu, featuring a crispy chicken breast and country-style gravy sandwiched in a pair of Belgian waffles.
|White Castle's Chicken and Waffles sandwich.
With 96 percent penetration across Datassential’s MenuTrends Database of US chain and independent restaurants, chicken flocked to the top of the most common ingredients, descriptors and preparations on menus in appetizers, entrees, sides and desserts in 2013.
“The reason it has a higher penetration than something like beef or pork and lamb, is that it’s incredibly versatile, and it has a flavor profile that goes with just about every flavor that exists on Earth,” said Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. “Over the last few years, it has benefitted from better-for-you perception. Even when operators started moving toward the darker meats like chicken thighs, which are very big right now, they have more flavor than a breast but still have a better health perception than any other protein. And of course it’s less expensive. Not to mention you also have operations that are chicken-only focused.”
Chicken chains showed above average growth among top limited-service restaurant chains last year, according to Technomic. Sales for the sub-segment grew 5.1 percent in 2013, compared with a 3.5 percent increase for the 500 largest US restaurant chains overall.
Because chicken is a “favorable commodity” compared to beef currently, the bird is being rediscovered by restaurant operators, said Nancy Kruse, president of The Kruse Co., Atlanta.
Speaking at Technomic Inc.’s Trends & Directions Conference last June, Kruse noted a shakeup in the chicken category that includes a growth in dark meat and an evolution of a better chicken segment.
“This is not going to replace the better burger category, but there will be opportunistic growth from chefs who are locked out of better burgers; where they can exert culinary prowess and focus on better chicken products,” Kruse said. “Concepts may come from an heirloom breed or something done by hand in the back of the house.”
She added that chicken’s versatility ranges through all of the day-parts, including snacking, and preparations may include grilled, rotisserie or fried.
Not all chicken innovation has soared, however. Last year, McDonald’s Corp. admitted its Mighty Wings rollout performed weaker than expected, and less than a year after launching, KFC’s heavily hyped Boneless Chicken platform has been moved off the permanent menu.