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Chicken rules the roost

Sysco SHAPE August 2018

Chefs and operators cater to consumers' chicken cravings with a variety of exciting menu options. 

Chicken is once again on the wing, and Americans apparently can't get enough of this versatile bird.

Long a favorite among consumers and culinarians looking for more healthful protein options, chicken is increasingly being featured in a multitude of ways on menus across the U.S. 

“Chicken is back and is growing in popularity,” says the Af&co 2018 Hospitality Trend Report. “Rotisserie chicken, fried chicken, chicken sandwiches — high-end chefs are embracing chicken and elevating its status. It's cheap, delicious and couldn't be more comforting.”

Arlene Spiegel, president of New York consultancy Arlene Spiegel & Associates, agrees, saying, “Chicken is the one protein that everyone understands. It’s not exotic by itself yet allows itself to become the all-American or global cuisine vehicle for every chef or home cook. Chicken is affordable and accessible, and provides a range of convenience.”

Chicken consumption climbs

In Datassential's Meat & Poultry Keynote report, which was published at the end of 2017, consumers were asked if their chicken consumption was increasing, decreasing or remained the same. Over a third (36 percent) of those polled said their chicken consumption has increased over the past year, while 21 percent said the same for beef and 19 percent for pork. Those individuals who are increasing chicken consumption say they are doing so for two key reasons: affordability and healthfulness compared to other animal proteins. 

Datassential calls chicken the most ubiquitous protein on restaurant menus, with 95 percent of restaurants offering it. Americans will eat a record 93 pounds of chicken per person in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

Winging it

To be sure, chicken's flavor, health halo and ability to be prepared in a variety of ways has helped to fuel its growing popularity. For example, wing sales continue to drive business at many restaurants. For Super Bowl weekend alone, the National Chicken Council said Americans consumed 1.35 billion wings — up 1.5 percent, or 20 million wings, from 2017. The NCC estimates that of all the wings eaten during Super Bowl weekend, 75 percent were purchased from restaurants or foodservice outlets.

Fried goes global

A revival of interest in fried chicken also is helping to stoke sales at restaurants. “Serving fried chicken in restaurants from fast food to fast casual to fine dining is on fire and there is no end in sight to its popularity,” says Dale Miller, president of Master Chef Consulting Group.

In particular, chicken and waffles — long a favorite southern pairing — is generating menu excitement across the industry. But fried chicken also is appearing solo on menus in a variety of iterations, from traditional authentic southern fare to globally influenced preparations relying on a diverse range of spices and flavorings from North Africa, South America and Asia, Spiegel notes. 

Chicken infused with Sriracha, gochujang or sambal prior to frying and served on unique breads or flavor-packed waffles is also cropping up on menus, Miller says.

In addition, two types of Asian fried chicken are currently trending, Datassential reports. The Japanese-style fried chicken called karaage, made with a tempura batter, is up 146 percent on chicken menus since 2014, while Korean-style fried chicken, which is typically fried twice in a potato flour batter for an extra crunchy crust, has grown 86 percent during that period.

But good old all-American fried chicken is experiencing a new surge in popularity too, Spiegel says. According to Datassential, the super-spicy Nashville hot chicken is the fastest-growing preparation today, having increased over 400 percent on chicken menus since 2014. Fried chicken served with, biscuits, another southern staple, reflects a further twist of the trend — particularly among restaurants that menu comfort foods.

In fact, consumers say they just can't get enough of fried chicken. A study commissioned by, asked 1,000 Americans “What best describes your attitude toward fried chicken. Fifty percent replied “I love it,” while 28 percent said “I like it.” A further 16 percent humorously announced they love fried chicken so much they “would marry it.”

Rotisseries are turning

As fried chicken continues to gain in popularity, industry trend watchers are keeping their eye on rotisserie chicken as well. While currently appearing on only a small percentage of foodservice menus, spit-roasted chicken represents big take-out business for supermarkets — which presents a potential sales opportunity for restaurateurs. A Datassential study found that two-thirds of consumers said they purchase rotisserie chickens regularly or occasionally.

“Rotisserie chicken is the most popular take-home item in every grocery store in America,” says Spiegel. Restaurants looking to compete in that sector must find ways to differentiate and elevate their offerings from supermarket offerings. For example, she recommends, operators should “provide descriptions, such as 'We brine our free-range chickens in a special blend of spices and gently baste it with our secret sauce during the cooking in our Rotisol oven.'”

The addition of signature rubs, marinades and unique presentations also can win over customers who might otherwise purchase their rotisserie chicken from the supermarket.

Miller suggests offering a whole rotisserie chicken with unique sides and accompaniments as a table-sharing event, which can create a family dining experience. “Serving courses such as a velouté of chicken, apricot and wild mushroom bisque, salad of pulled leg and thigh meat with truffle vinaigrette and champagne drizzled chicken breast with cream-filled waffles will wow your guests and leave delis and supermarkets in the dust,” he says.

“Stay on the lookout for more chefs introducing the versatile rotisserie chicken — easy on operations and the wallet, and perfect for delivery and take-out,” says the Af&co 2018 Hospitality Trend Report.

In the meantime, operators and chefs should jump on the chicken bandwagon whenever possible, giving customers a variety of flavorful choices and dining experiences. “Don’t chicken out,” advises Af&co. “It’s time to embrace the original white meat.” 



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