Grilled offerings, boneless wings and energy-efficient equipment have revitalized the chicken segment, which continues to perform in a tough economy.
Forget the burger wars; the battle's on for the top spot in the chicken segment.
The signs are everywhere, with the extensive media coverage for KFC's new grilled chicken line, the expansion of wing bars across the country and restaurants' expansion of chicken items on menus.
In limited service restaurants (LSR), chicken sales totaled more than $16 billion, experiencing 2.6 percent growth from 2007 to 2008, according to Chicago-based research firm Technomic.
A handful of emerging chains continue to drive the real growth in this category. In 2008, Guatemala City-based Pollo Campero's total number of outlets grew by almost 30 percent, Technomic reports. Wingstop, based in Richardson, Texas, increased its number of units nearly 20 percent last year. Another wing operation, Agawam, Mass.-based Wings Over, grew its locations by almost 14 percent during the same period.
"We've had great success and are growing like crazy," says Sylvia Matzke-Hill, director of research and development at Buffalo Wild Wings, based in Minneapolis. The chain operates 590 locations across 40 states. "We are adding sites at a feverish pace."
A number of factors continue to help chicken sales take flight. Innovation on the equipment side allows for streamlined and simplified preparation. Technological developments enable foodservice operators to effectively address challenges specific to this segment, such as oil management.
Chicken's versatility represents its standout feature. "We're seeing much diversification in this segment," Matzke-Hill says. "Operators are expanding on traditional chicken dishes, using different applications and cooking techniques."
Although Buffalo Wild Wings fries many of its chicken items, the chain also incorporates the poultry into salads, sandwiches and appetizers, to keep its menu fresh. Some of the newer menu items at Buffalo Wild Wings include Chicken Tender Slammers, chicken flatbreads, and a Twisted Chicken Salad.
Chicken's mild flavor also gives chains the opportunity to evolve with customers' tastes. For example, five years ago, Athens, Ga.-based Zaxby's improved its salads by adding grilled chicken as an option instead of only fried chicken. The results have been impressive.
Combining comfort food appeal with healthier offerings, the 472-site chain now sells more grilled chicken salads than fried. "We used to sell 40,000 salads a day, and now it's up to 180,000 salads per day," says Stephanie Struble, Zaxby's director of brand development.
Sales of boneless wings also have improved at Zaxby's. The success of a trio of promotions for this product prompted to the item's permanent addition to the menu. "We were experiencing a 20 percent substitution rate, with customers ordering boneless wings in place of the bone-in version," Struble says. "Our boneless wings are nice chunks cleanly trimmed breast meat. Customers know what they're biting into and boneless wings are easier to eat."
Wingstop continues to experience strong sales in boneless wings at its 425 locations. "Bone-in chicken sales are down overall. As a result, we're seeing more of a trend towards boneless chicken, including breast strips and chunks. People who are looking to eat healthier want to avoid the skin," says COO Bill Knight.
The fried market also seems to be cooling in contrast to the red-hot grilled chicken segment. KFC's expansion into the grilled-chicken category has received much media attention in recent months, suggesting that even chains with an established fried brand should broaden their appeal. Pollo Campero anticipated the changing chicken climate. "We were the first brand to leverage grilled chicken more than a year ago," says Todd Deckert, the chain's director of marketing. "Even though our equity was in chicken on the bone, we needed to expand our product line to capitalize on the category's changing dynamics."
In March of 2008, the chain added grilled items to its menu. A year later, Pollo Campero expanded offerings to include a portable line of grilled- and fried chicken sandwiches.
Even for chains focusing on bone-in wings, nontraditional and ethnic flavors are prominent on menus. Wings Over's 23 locations specialize in a diverse selection of hand-battered wings, along with fried- and broiled-chicken tenders. The 24 sauce options include traditional choices such as barbecue as well as garlic parmesan, honey lime and sesame.
In the back of the house, efficiency in energy use, oil management and service time remain the focus for most operators. Pollo Campero's grab-and-go offerings require its equipment to handle high volumes. "In our operations, speed of service is key," says Matt Kobylski, director of construction.
In addition, operators look to each piece of foodservice equipment to maximize profit. Operators no longer evaluate fryers based solely on the Btus they consume; the process also includes recovery times and thermal mass as it relates to cooking chicken at lower temperatures while using fewer Btus.
"There are great energy efficiencies happening with fryers as well as with char broilers and ovens," says Val Johnson, Buffalo Wild Wings' equipment purchasing manager. "As a result, we're constantly testing equipment."
Buffalo Wild Wings is replacing its existing char broilers with more energy-efficient models. In doing so, the chain discovered it can use fewer char broilers to meet the same production requirements. "We are looking at other factors with these units, including hot spots on the char broiler. It's important that every inch of the cooking surface is holding temperatures consistently," Johnson says.
Buffalo Wild Wings emphasizes oil management and the chain trains staff to properly manage the resource. "We've recently been looking at oil management systems, where oil is topped off automatically," Johnson says. "We've also seen improvements in filtering applications, with new filter machine designs that are more productive. These pull out more sediment from the oil, including the minute particles. Now we can even remove fatty acids."
Emerging chain Wings Over had good results with the energy-efficient fryers it added at the end of last year. Each location typically has a battery of five 80-pound fryers that include one filter unit. "Self-cleaning burners keep the units efficient," says Mark Simonds, Wings Over's president. "We ran studies on the fryers and determined that we are saving about 20 percent on our gas usage per location."
Wings Over utilizes the services of a company that delivers bulk oil and recycles the used product. The arrangement helps prevent oil handling injuries, Simonds says.
Zaxby's incorporates equipment that prepares boneless wings quickly, without affecting the quality. "Our concept started with limited holding capabilities," Struble says. As the chain evolved the need for large areas of cold and hot holding for both fried and grilled foods became necessary. Using a just-in-time production method, each store typically holds menu items five-to-ten minutes before serving.
A supplier recommended Zaxby's switch from 14" to 18" open fryers. In addition to these six units, the back of the house also contains 36" chrome top griddles that are used to prepare hot sandwiches and Texas toast. A pair of 14"-by-14" panini presses also are used.
In addition, Zaxby's continues to update its equipment package. Newer hot-holding lamps, which heat from both the top and bottom, have 50 percent more space than previous models to accommodate appetizer items; the number of dedicated covered holding bins was increased to six from four; and a humidity-controlled holding cabinet stores bone-in chicken. According to Struble, the updates have cut drive-thru waiting time in half, to four minutes from eight.
"This is important, since our average volume is increasing. It allows us to cook and hold while still maintaining quality," Struble says.
Wingstop's high efficiency fryers include a built-in cooking filtration system. Knight attributes 75 percent to 80 percent of the chain's sales to the five 18" fryers in each kitchen. The chain also added a walk-in freezer for boneless wings and strips as well as a convection oven and two-plate burner to replace standard ovens.
Pollo Campero's quality standards dictate that products be held a maximum of 40 minutes. In addition, the chain specifies holding equipment that can both retain and prevent moisture in their products "We had holding cabinets in place to protect the chickens' crispiness, but now we need new equipment that helps maintain moisture and add humidity to hold grilled chicken. This has big implications on the complexity of our restaurants," Deckert says.
Looking to maintain its value proposition for franchisees, Pollo Campero updated packaging for its grab-and-go items, researched shelving options and developed a matrix to determine franchisee profitability. "If we can't develop a system that is profitable for our franchisees, it's not worth it," Deckert says.
Along those lines, the Pollo Campero also works with equipment vendors to find innovative ways to maintain product quality, minimize waste and increase profitability, and is exploring adding stores with smaller footprints. "It is not just about having the ability to grill, but adding this equipment to an existing footprint that is the challenge," Deckert says.
Chicken operations face a number of challenges. Because chicken is a commodity, prices vary and supply can be an issue. Food costs typically run three to five points higher than in other segments.
"Buying by the pound and selling by the piece can be tricky," Knight says. "The cost is always a challenge, since the price of chicken is typically higher than pizza and burgers. Plus, chicken sizes vary."
Wingstop compensates for cost fluctuations by regularly reviewing prices. The chain's new breast strip and boneless wings offer a higher margin at a lower cost, helping balance food costs.
The use of trans-fat-free oil also raises a chicken operation's costs by about a nickel a pound. "We've incorporated trans fat free oil over the last year, as it has become available to the market. It definitely raises operation costs, but this oil has come a long way as far as usage goes," Wing Over's Simonds says.
Food safety and cross contamination are constant concerns. "If we were bringing in ready-to-eat chicken rather than fresh product that we marinate and bread by hand, cross contamination wouldn't be as big of an issue," Zaxby's Struble says. "Handling fresh poultry takes specific know-how in terms of food safety, but we're not any different than other restaurants in this regard."
Buffalo Wild Wings has separate coolers dedicated to its chicken products and temperatures are constantly monitored. "Our back of the house is set up to keep chicken safe from cross contamination. We are strict with our processes and policies," Matzke-Hill says.
Wingstop's checkpoints are designed to thwart cross contamination. Operations are overseen by ServSafe-certified managers and employees conduct temperature checks every two hours. Wingstop staff also closely monitor its walk in temperatures and the chain stores chicken in dedicated units.(do we need to discuss checkpoints since all operations are expected to be HACCP-engaged?)
"The importance of food safety is drilled into our operations team," Knight says. "Consequently, we are able to limit the instances our kitchen staff has direct contact with raw chicken."
Wingstop's meat is delivered in vacuum-packed boxes, which staff rotate from the cooler to the kitchen. Cooks are taught to keep one hand behind their backs when touching the chicken. In addition, Wingstop staff use hands-free sinks and clean sauce bowls every two hours.
The basics are most important, and the fundamental food safety standards need to be applied in any foodservice operation, Pollo Campero's Deckert says. "Because we handle fresh product, we have to be diligent. We employ strong disciplines in how we do this, from equipment to chemicals and processes."
Pollo Campero uses hands-free sinks, too. Refrigeration doors have dual handles, so those working in the prep line can open doors with a different handle than those handling raw meat. Maintaining the proper holding environment for different types of chicken also can be a challenge.
"Extending the product shelf life helps franchisees manage inventory, but adds complexities with our standards," Kobylski says. "Operating three separate environments to keep product up to the quality levels we want can be difficult,"
Oil management is another challenge. Buffalo Wild Wings' oil handling guidelines help prevent staff injuries, and it is considering oil disposal alternatives. "We are looking at systems where oil is pumped out of the building into a disposal tank, rather than poured into a caddy and wheeled outside to be manually dumped in a barrel," Johnson says. "We've tried to make oil collection as safe as possible, but we need to incorporate newer technology."
Despite these challenges, operators predict chicken's healthier profile, adaptability and popularity are indicators that this segment will continue to be a strong performer. "There is no doubt the chicken segment is growing," Simonds says. "We've seen the amount of poultry consumed increase about 10 percent over the last year. It's a cheaper protein for this economy than some other meats. People are definitely ordering more chicken."
"Chicken's a great platform for anything," Struble says.