Bird Watching – US Food Trends

17 January 2007 by
Bird Watching – US Food Trends

Operators share top-selling poultry presentations that combine superior products and kitchen know-how with a dash of business savvy.

This article first appeared in the December 2006 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>

By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor

A staggering 450 chicken and 250 turkey dishes rotate through Executive Chef Aran Essig's menus at the University of Northern Colorado (UNCO) in Greeley. Even among so many choices, the top poultry draws are fried-chicken entrées evocative of home.

Among UNCO students, one of the favorites is Chicken Katsu, a nod to the school's large contingent of Hawaiian students. Similar in preparation to fellow top seller Chicken-Fried Chicken, boneless, skinless breasts are breaded with seasoned panko crumbs, deep-fried, sliced and served with rice, macaroni salad and spicy-sweet sauce.

"We started selling it at a cash-only operation for dinner and increased sales from 25 a night to 200 in the first year," Essig says.

Given American's affinity for fowl, devoting menu space to it is a no-brainer, but the true test for operators is knowing their client base well enough to figure out which recipes will spur strong sales-and how to best execute them within the context of their concepts.

Know Your Audience

At St. Louis-based Hardee's, menu developers knew that creating one of the largest quick-service chicken sandwiches available would resonate with core users, who also made the chain's Thickburger line a resounding success. The Big Chicken Fillet Sandwich, deep-fried in seasoned breading and simply adorned with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, became Hardee's best-selling chicken entrée.

Understanding local dining preferences also provides insight. Charlotte, N.C.-based Flat Rock Grille's Loaded Chicken is the top choice for chicken orders and also ranks third in overall sales at the seafood-centered chain.

"People like their food rich here in the South, and there's no taking that away from them," says Fred LeFranc, president and CEO of the six-unit casual-dining concept.

The entrée uses boneless, skinless breasts that are brined for extra flavor, grilled and loaded with ham, bacon and Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses. The dish is finished in the oven and delivered with honey-mustard dressing spiked with pepper sauce.

One of the most in-demand selections on Orefield, Pa.-based Cura Hospitality's new Flavors of Home menu, designed for senior-living accounts, is Pennsylvania German pot pie, a regional version of the classic. Whole chickens are cooked in stock, the meat then mixed with potatoes, vegetables and flat noodles (instead of the standard crust) to create a stew-like meal.

Even more popular is the Sunday turkey dinner, featuring whole, roast birds seasoned simply with salt, pepper and garlic.

"Residents prefer traditional recipes," says Todd Saylor, director of product and system development. "As they get older, food preferences shift back to those of their younger days."

Customers at Carafe, a Parisian-style bistro and wine bar in Portland, Ore., often are drawn to recipes they're not likely to find at home. Chef-owner Pascal Sauton's top poultry performer is duck confit, matched on the current menu with frisée salad and pear poached in pinot noir. Sauton purchases duck legs, more economical than whole birds, and cures them overnight. The legs are rinsed, slow-cooked in duck fat and crisped on the stovetop.

Trade Up

For Carafe and other restaurants that are so inclined, sourcing superior products can pay dividends. The emergence of natural, organic and free-range poultry illustrates this trend, as do increasing appearances of top-shelf chicken varieties such as Blue Foot and Jidori.

Organic duck "2-ways" has been the No. 1 seller among all entrées at Mediterranean-themed Copperblue since it opened in Chicago last January. Chef and co-owner Michael Tsonton says much of the dish's appeal stems from its juxtaposition of textures and tastes, but the duck breasts and legs he purchases from a nearby farm also make "a huge difference."

The breasts are skinned and seasoned with ras el hanout, a Moroccan spice blend, then wrapped in caul fat for roasting. The legs, cured in a mixture that also includes ras el hanout, are confited.

Daniel Humm, executive chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, says using high-end products helps dispel the perception that chicken is not upscale. The restaurant's Poached Organic Poularde-free-range chicken poached whole with black truffles tucked beneath the skin-more than earns its keep. "If you poach something, it pronounces the flavor of the product itself; if you sear it, that seared flavor is dominant," Humm says of the unconventional preparation.

Executive Chef Steven Varga uses a similar approach at Le Cirque at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. One of the restaurant's most-ordered dishes centers around whole organic chicken roasted with black truffles beneath the skin. To serve, the breast and legs are boned and matched with vegetables and dariole potatoes.

In the Game

While most Americans don't opt for game birds such as pheasant, partridge, goose and quail as often as they do chicken, turkey and duck, that doesn't stop operators from menuing less-common choices.

Sino Restaurant & Lounge in San Jose, Calif., menus multiple chicken entrées but also enjoys solid sales of Chef-owner Chris Yeo's Roasted Tea-Smoked Quails. The birds marinate overnight in a mix that includes brewed black tea, soy sauce, star anise, ginger, cinnamon and dried tangerine peel; the following day, they are wood-smoked.

"Quails are smaller, so they cook faster than chicken, and they make a nice presentation whole," Yeo says.

Carvel Grant Gould, executive chef at Atlanta's Canoe, credits waitstaff with helping make Sage-Roasted Pheasant one of the restaurant's top performers.

"Our servers adore it so they recommend it," she says, adding that proper cooking to medium-rare so it's juicy also factors into the success.

Gould buys the birds whole. Skin-on breasts are seasoned and seared crisp to order, and basted toward the end of cooking with sage compound butter. The legs are skinned and braised, then mixed with reduced braising liquid to create savory croquettes. The pieces later are coated with panko crumbs and seasoned flour for deep-frying.

Don't Chicken Out

Chain operators know that many customers favor tried-and-true poultry preparations, and sticking with what works is the first step in stirring sales. A menu special of Grilled Chicken Alfredo is the reigning best seller among several chicken entrées and one turkey dish available at Spartanburg, S.C.-based Denny's. Individual quick-frozen chicken breasts are grilled and tossed with linguine and vegetables in a creamy ready-made sauce.

The recipe's familiar flavor profile draws diners, but what really moves the dish is its bang for the buck, says Vice President of Product Development Peter Gibbons.

"Value is important to our patrons, and one way they perceive it is in big flavors," he says, adding that the chicken Alfredo delivers on both counts. Among six chicken dishes sold at Dallas-based Maggiano's Little Italy, Chicken Saltimbocca wins over the most customers. Culinary Concept Chef Keith Brunell attributes the dish's appeal to its multilayered flavor profile.

The saltimbocca features chicken breasts pounded for tenderness and quick, even cooking. Layered with prosciutto and fresh sage, they are dusted with seasoned breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese and refrigerated. To order, each chicken breast is seared on one side, topped with aged provolone cheese and finished in the oven. Like the product itself, the efficient process allows for fast pickup times that satisfy kitchens and diners alike.

Love Me Tender
They're shareable, dippable, simple to prepare and even easier to eat: It's no wonder chicken strips and tenders are beloved by customers and operators alike.

A staple at many chains, chicken tenders are featured on seven of every 10 menus and rank as the second most-popular poultry purchase among all foodservice operators (according to R&I's 2005 Menu Census).

  • When Whataburger guests started asking for chicken strips in the morning, the Corpus Christi, Texas-based chain responded by introducing the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit breakfast sandwich. The whole, white-meat chicken products arrive in stores breaded, frozen and ready to deep-fry.
  • Topping sales at quick-service chicken chain Zaxby's are whole-muscle, white-meat Chicken Fingerz. Marinated overnight, the pieces are breaded in batches and deep-fried as needed throughout the day. Besides combo meals, the Chicken Fingerz star in salads, sandwiches and Buffalo-style versions.
  • Many, but not all, chicken strips are battered and fried. Minneapolis-based casual-dining chain Buffalo Wild Wings rounds out its chicken-centred menu with grilled Naked Tenders, the presentation dressed up with the strips threaded onto skewers and served satay style with a choice of sauces.

Talking Turkey Roasted and carved, ground into burgers or piled atop sandwiches aren't the only paths to menu success for turkey. The often-overlooked poultry is purchased by nearly 60% of operators, according to R&I's 2005 Menu Census.

  • Executive Chef Aran Essig at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley swaps turkey cutlets for chicken breasts in traditional preparations such as pasta puttanesca, piccata and Provencal.
  • Turkey croquettes make regular appearances at Orefield, Pa.-based Cura Hospitality's senior-dining accounts. The chopped meat, mixed with sautéed onions, celery, creamed corn, breadcrumbs and egg, is breaded and deep-fried.
  • Creative turkey applications at Xavier University in Cincinnati, a Sodexho USA account, include ground-turkey enchiladas, turkey cutlets with bruschetta topping and turkey cutlet saltimbocca.
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