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Chicken: Plain Jane Gets Plucky – US Food Trends

30 August 2007
Chicken: Plain Jane Gets Plucky – US Food Trends

Operators bolster the menu appeal of chicken sandwiches with carefully orchestrated condiments, seasonings and bread choices.

This article first appeared in the 1 August 2007 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 Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor

Avid burger devotees can describe in detail the qualities of their all-time favorite versions; other diners might tell tales of a great lobster roll, delectable po' boy or perfect Philly cheesesteak. That level of passion is hard to come by in discussing the chicken sandwich, a menu workhorse so familiar that it doesn't always get the attention it deserves.

"For Bear Rock, chicken always has been a very well-liked, popular protein," says Deneen Nethercutt, vice president of marketing for Cary, N.C.-based Bear Rock Cafe, where chicken sandwiches account for 15% of sales. "Its healthy reputation and ability to be paired with creative sauces and other ingredients make it a highlighted and beloved menu item."

Even for Miami hot-dog concept Dogma Grill, chicken sandwiches are an important menu alternative. Manager Will Vélez recalls that the company opened with a grilled-chicken sandwich on its original menu and was surprised by how well it performed. "We added the chicken wrap about eight months later," he says.

This wide appeal explains why chicken sandwiches occupy menu space in every foodservice segment. "Everyone has to have one," acknowledges Josh Curtis, corporate chef at Loveland, Colo.-based Old Chicago. "But it doesn't have to be Plain Jane," he adds.

The Chicken Sandwich Challenge

Building a flavorful chicken sandwich can be an artistic pursuit-much more so, thinks Gregory Brainin, than composing a new burger. Brainin, director of creative development for New York City-based Jean-Georges Management, sees a lot of room for differentiation in chicken sandwiches. One such example is on the lunch menu at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Spice Market in New York City. Spinning off the traditional Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, a lightly brined chicken breast is grilled, sliced, then incorporated into a sandwich with eggplant purée, sopressata, lightly pickled slices of carrots and celery, cilantro, mint, and a mayonnaise flavored with lime juice, vinegar, garlic, chiles and fish sauce.

"The purpose of these modifications is to make the sandwich more appealing to more people and to improve on the original by focusing the flavors in a specific way," Brainin says.

Executive Chef Kristine Subido of Wave Restaurant & Bar in the W Chicago Lakeshore hotel looks at developing chicken sandwiches as an exercise in cooking basics. "People always ask for a chicken sandwich, especially around lunch," she says. "But it's hard to have a good chicken sandwich on the menu. Often it's dry or it lacks flavor."

To avoid these potential pitfalls, she marinates butterflied chicken breasts in oil, fresh herbs and garlic and monitors cooks to make sure the chicken is cooked to perfection. The chicken is placed on a thin slice of rosemary focaccia, topped with a slice of idiazabal, an aged Basque sheep's-milk cheese, and flashed under a salamander. The sandwich, completed with sliced pear, arugula, and mayonnaise, captures fully 40% of her lunch orders.

Change also can be a good thing. Old Chicago pulled an underperforming honey-barbecue chicken sandwich from the menu. To fill the hole, the company is serving a blackened-chicken sandwich as a limited-time offer to see if a bolder twist on the sandwich will appeal to more guests.

"We know our customers like big, bold flavors," Curtis says. "We wanted to make [a chicken sandwich] that was flavorful, not bland."

Chicken breasts are dusted with blackening spice mix and seared in a hot oven between two sheet trays, which helps reduce shrinkage. Mozzarella is melted atop the chicken while the sourdough bread, brushed with roasted-garlic butter, is toasted.

"We want to make sure the chicken, the cheese and the bread are warm," Curtis explains.

Keeping It Simple

It's basics like these that Co-Owner Jan Kirchoff adheres to at her two Deli Lane Café locations in South Miami, Fla., and Miami. "The way to make a great sandwich? Pay attention to every ingredient," she insists.

At Deli Lane, that means making such condiments as honey mustard in-house; pounding chicken breasts for quick, even grilling; and making careful bread selections.

"The bread needs to be fresh, first of all, and not too doughy," Kirchoff says. "If it's too big, it will take over the flavor of whatever you put on it."

Danny Bortnick, executive chef at Firefly in Washington, D.C., echoes the importance of bread. "It's got to be the right bread," he says, adding that every element of a great sandwich should be delicious on its own. Although he hasn't put a chicken sandwich on his menu of upscale American comfort food, he's considering adding a chicken-salad sandwich. "I don't want to do a grilled chicken breast on a bun," he adds.

Instead, he's contemplating composing a chicken-salad sandwich served on a lobster-roll-style bun. The chicken would be tossed with diced celery and green apple, parsley, chives, Dijon mustard and a citrus-spiced mayonnaise. He might then top the sandwich with thinly sliced onions dredged in flour and fried until crispy.

"What's going to make it interesting is that it is going to be simple," he says.

And there's certainly something to be said for simplicity. For David Binkle, foodserice director at California State University, Fresno, that means a piece of breaded-and-fried chicken on a bun. "Day to day, that is the most consistent product we have," Binkle says.

Even Plain Janes have their day.

Early Birds: Chicken for Breakfast

At California State University, Fresno, Foodservice Director David Binkle is bringing Chick-fil-A to campus this fall. While Binkle cites operational acumen and brand appeal as reasons he approached the Atlanta-based chain, he also had another element in mind: growing his breakfast business. "We're missing an opportunity here," he says.

Binkle discovered that students were buying chicken sandwiches in the morning at the campus Subway, which opens at 7 a.m. With Chick-fil-A offering chicken on a biscuit, Binkle expects sales of breakfast chicken sandwiches to grow.

He's not the only one. McDonald's last year began testing a chicken-and-biscuit breakfast sandwich in select Southern markets.

Eating chicken sandwiches for breakfast might be more common than expected. Last fall, The New York Times' restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, blogged about a chicken salad sandwich he often breakfasts on at the Fairway Café in Manhattan. Dark meat, he wrote, complemented the white meat, while a little mayonnaise and celery finished the rest. The sandwich was sliced in thirds and served on sturdy, dark bread-proving, perhaps, that room exists outside of chicken-on-biscuits for breakfast.

That's not to say that chicken on biscuits lacks crossover appeal at lunch. Just ask John Romano, culinary manager at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. The hospital has had success with serving sliced chicken breast with cranberry mayonnaise on mini cranberry biscuits for catering events. "It's an unexpected sandwich with a familiar flavor," Romano explains.

The Flock

From regional American barbecue to Indian curry, there isn't a cuisine that doesn't embrace chicken sandwiches, as evidenced by these chain-menu offerings.

  • Rosemary Chicken Panini: Marinated chicken breast with oven-roasted zucchini, tomato, provolone cheese and pesto on plain, crispy-cheese or caramelized-onion bread. Bertucci's Brick Oven Ristorante
  • Spicy flat Bread Chicken Sandwich: Grilled chicken breast with pepper-Jack cheese, avocado-corn salsa, red onion, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on grilled flatbread. Grand Lux Cafe
  • Chicken Spinach Mix: Two char-broiled chicken breasts on grilled sourdough with melted Swiss cheese and warm spinach-artichoke dip. Claddagh Irish Pub
  • Chicken and Pesto: Free-roaming-chicken breast meat and pesto sauce on warm flatbread. O'Naturals
  • Chicken Pomodoro: Pulled smoked white-meat chicken, fresh mozzarella, basil and vine-ripened-tomato Pomodora Sauce on sesame-semolina bread, grilled. Panera Bread.
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