Carol M. Bareuther
There was a time not long ago when the only chicken available at the supermarket was the need-to-cook kind sold in the meat department. Then, in the early 1990s, the fast-casual restaurant chain first called Boston Chicken, later named Boston Market, popularized rotisserie-cooked chicken. It didn’t take long for retail delis to add rotisserie ovens filled with fresh, hot, whole chickens to go as a popular and profitable way to grow prepared foods sales. Today, deli operators that have taken a “sky’s the limit approach” to innovation are seeing their chicken sales soar. A great example is Publix Super Markets, a nearly 1,400-store chain headquartered in Lakeland, FL, whose deli is known for its fried chicken and chicken tender subs, both sold traditionally and with a twist.
“Beyond our 8-piece mix fried chicken, we also have a following for our fried tenders and popcorn chicken. Through our innovation process, we have taken those already popular items and have introduced several new items with a twist,” says Hannah Herring, media relations manager for Publix. “Leading with our Nashville hot 8-piece mix fried chicken last year, we continued the Nashville hot trend by offering wings, tenders and recently brought on a Nashville hot chicken tender sandwich. In addition to the Nashville hot profile, we spiced up the popcorn chicken item by adding a hot and spicy version.”
The retailer also introduced four new chicken tender subs in May, Herring adds. “Customers love to customize their chicken tender subs, and we used information about the most popular combinations to create some new menu items including buffalo chicken tender sub, bacon ranch chicken tender sub, parmesan-style chicken tender sub and sweet and spicy chicken tender sub.”
Chicken rules the roost these days as a protein. Per capita consumption is estimated to hit 101.8 pounds of per capita consumption in 2023, about twice of beef (57.4 pounds per capita) and pork (50.0 pounds per capita), according to USDA statistics as shared by the Washington, D.C.-headquartered National Chicken Council (NCC).
Said another way, chicken ranked second only to sushi in deli entrée sales in 2022, representing nearly one-fifth (18.5%) of category share with sales up 37.3%, according to the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association’s What’s in Store 2023 report.
“This trend can be attributed to pricing, as premium beef and pork cuts are significantly more costly than chicken as well as perceived health or environmental benefits, and simply to personal preference. Long story short, consumers love chicken,” says Eliza Bobolz, associate brand manager for the Broaster Company, based in Beloit, WI. The company offers a branded trademark food program, for which delis can order front window decals, packaging, signage, and accessory equipment to help customers find their way to the deli and the Genuine Broaster Chicken display.
Here are eight ways to make sure deli chicken flies off the shelves:
1. TRY A ROTISSERIE LTO
Rotisserie chicken, as well as 8-piece fried chicken, are the favorites in most delis, according to Tom Bell, vice president of prepared foods sales for Wayne-Sanderson Farms, in Oakwood, GA. “The reason is the ease of use for the consumer and its value proposition especially for families.”
Keep rotisserie chicken sales on a roll with flavors.
“Most delis use a basic savory seasoning. To have four or five flavors would be an operational and labor challenge. Yet, taking a cue from food service and offering a limited-time offer (LTO) flavor can be profitable,” explains Scott Moses, senior brand manager for Tyson Foods, headquartered in Springdale, AR.
“For example, offer a green hatch chile rub on the rotisserie chicken in the fall, in addition to the original. This does two things. Either the shopper buys the novel flavor. Or, if they don’t like the flavor, the call out can increase their awareness of rotisserie chicken and they buy the original on impulse. So, an LTO flavor is a tide that can raise sales of all rotisserie chicken.”
2. GO OVER TO THE DARK SIDE
The use of dark meat chicken is starting to pick up, says Wayne-Sanderson Farms’ Bell, “due to its value to the consumer.”
The cost of chicken, specifically white meat wings and breasts, went up dramatically in the last 12 to 18 months and is finally returning to more palatable levels according to the Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook: June 15, 2023, report, from the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
“Instead of the traditional 8-piece fried chicken, with two breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks, and two wings, some retailers are offering a 10-piece all dark meat with five drumsticks and five thighs for the same price as the 8-piece,” says Tyson Foods’ Moses. “Or, they are offering baked leg quarters as a value entrée, either hot or cold grab-and-go.”
3. SELL CRISPY FRIED COMFORT
Comfort fare ranked fourth in the 10 Hot Trends named in the 2023 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast, released in November 2023 by the National Restaurant Association, in Washington, D.C. Fried chicken is a quintessential comfort food. However, hand breading and traditional frying can be labor intensive. Enter a broasted chicken program in the deli.
“Our Bone-in Genuine Broaster Chicken is a deli staple for quite a few reasons,” says the Broaster Company’s Bobolz. “First, breading ahead allows deli operators to bread during less busy times and then fry, freeing up hands in the kitchen during peak hours. Secondly, our pressure fryers are easy to train on and use, are programmable, and automatic filtering is available, so oil lasts longer and the product tastes better. Third, consumers love its distinct breading, aroma, and taste, and it travels well from store to home.”
The company’s newest pressure fryer, the E-Series 24G, has an auto-lift feature that automatically lowers and raises chicken into the cooking well. This enables more products to be cooked in the same amount of time while reducing the burden on cooks.
“Not all operators know that pressure fryers can almost double your throughput per unit. Plus, they use less oil, and the finished product is more tender and juicier, which creates crave-able signature menu items that consumers will seek out in repeat sales,” adds Katie Klaus, the Broaster Company’s senior marketing manager.
4. WING IT!
Chicken wings are king on occasions like Super Bowl snacking. This year, according to the NCC’s Chicken Wing Report, Americans ate a record-breaking 1.45 billion chicken wings during the big game weekend.
It’s not just holidays, but every day that wings are big sellers, according to Wayne-Sanderson Farms’ Bell. “Our chicken wing varieties have been our most popular item. We offer fully cooked products that cut down on fry time and reduce cross-contamination risks. Our newest is a fully cooked breaded honey wing, that has been well received by many of our top retail customers. It offers a sweet flavor both in the breading and marinade. We’ve coupled this with a crispy coating that stays crispy in the deli case.”
Consider adding wing bars if not already in store, adds Bell. “In some retailers, it has expanded their total revenues with products that hold up well. This also allows the consumer to choose their flavors and quantities.”
5. BONE UP ON BONE-IN & BONELESS
Understanding the deli customer demographic is essential to hone in a chicken program right down to the bone.
“Are you serving an older demographic looking for an alternative to drive-thru for dinner? Go with bone-in family packs with a variety of side options. Or is your location in more of a trendy part of town with more Gen-Z and younger visitors? Lean more into boneless options with tenders and sandwiches. Offer a wide range of dipping sauce options, ways to customize the chicken and LTOs with trending flavor profiles,” says the Broaster Company’s Klaus.
6. BITE INTO FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH SALES
Fried chicken sandwiches and chicken sandwiches 3.0, the latter meaning those with spicy and sweet-heat fusion flavors on the chicken, ranked second on the 10 Hot Trends named in the NRA’s 2023 What’s Hot Culinary Forecast. Fried chicken sandwiches shot to fame in 2019 when quick-serve restaurant (QSR) chains like Popeyes and Chick-fil-A introduced especially finger-licking versions. This craze has continued as over 20 fast-food brands, from KFC and Church’s Texas Chicken to Panera Bread, Panda Express, and even McDonald’s, have since introduced or re-formulated and re-introduced them.
“We’ve developed a fully-cooked line of breaded breast filets that include foil-lined bags within the case. This allows the retailer to enter the sandwich wars without stocking bags at each store. Each of the bags designates the flavor profile and works well in the hot case,” says Wayne-Sanderson Farms’ Bell.
Feature a sandwich of the week or month, suggests the Broaster Company’s Bobolz. “For example, a Korean barbecue flavor, Nashville hot with crunchy coleslaw or spicy honey drizzle.”
One day part gaining quite a bit of traffic post-pandemic is breakfast, adds Broaster’s Klaus. “Add a fillet to a biscuit, and a breakfast sandwich is born.”
7. RING THE DINNER BELL
Home cooks gained more confidence in meal-making at home during the pandemic, says Tom Super, the NCC’s senior vice president of communications. “However, today, they are continuing to seek convenience and a range of options in assembling meals.”
Home meal preparers are seeking ways to make this task easier, with 48% citing better-value food options, 36% wanting a larger selection of easy-to-prepare foods, 24% asking for more partially prepared meal options, and 23% reporting a desire for a better selection of meal kits, according to the 2023 U.S. Grocery Shoppers Trends study by the Arlington, VA-headquartered FMI-The Food Industry Association.
Delis can offer pre-cooked and ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat chicken products, such as rotisserie chicken, tenders, or wings for customers to grab-and-go, says Brooklyn Hubbard, content marketing specialist for the Henny Penny Corporation, an Eaton, OH-based foodservice equipment manufacturer. “Allowing customers to personalize their chicken dishes can be a hit. Delis may offer build-your-own chicken sandwiches, salads or bowls, where customers can choose their preferred chicken type, toppings and sauces. With an emphasis on family gatherings and convenience, delis can also offer family-sized chicken meal bundles that include sides and accompaniments.”
Hubbard adds Combi ovens are more versatile than rotisseries, enabling deli operators to roast chicken, as well as air fry, bake, smoke, steam, grill and more. An example is the ability of delis to prepare whole birds, grill juicy chicken breasts, and bake tray after tray of barbecue wings, all with the same piece of equipment. Also, complimentary sides can be cooked in the same Combi oven. The company’s FlexFusion Combi oven offers unique features such as the Chef’s Touch, an easy-to-use touchscreen interface that allows users to program cooking times, temperatures, and humidity levels for each dish. The controls also feature an array of applications for cooking, cleaning, operations, support, training and troubleshooting.
8. INSPIRE WITH DELI CHICKEN AS AN INGREDIENT
Forty percent of shoppers use rotisserie chicken leftovers as an ingredient, says Tyson Foods’ Moses, quoting company research. “It’s a great value for the deli, which can decrease shrink by cooling down their unsold rotisserie chicken, pulling the meat off the bone, and selling it as a grab-and-go meal starter. We also sell a ready-pulled cooked rotisserie chicken product. Then it’s all about education and inspiration. Use POS, signage, and recipes to suggest quick, easy, and delicious ways customers can use the chicken in meal-making.”
Retailers can also leverage their online recipes for chicken fixing with pulled rotisserie meat. A great example is Schnuck Markets, a 112-store chain headquartered in St. Louis, MO, which features an online article titled “26 Ways to Use Schnuck’s Rotisserie Chicken.” Rotisserie chicken and bacon sandwich, rotisserie chicken Raman and edamame, and spinach and rotisserie chicken salad taco kit are just three. Each is an excellent way to build basket rings and make deli chicken sales skyrocket.