Canadian Operators Are Stickin’ With Chicken

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Union Chicken

Canadians are eating more chicken than ever. According to the Chicken Farmers of Canada Data Booklet, in 1965, the average Canadian ate 10 kilos of chicken per year. In 2016, consumption rose to 32.5 kilos per year, which means the average Canadian is eating chicken about three to four times per week. But there’s more to the push for poultry than meets the eye as today’s consumers drive demand for chicken that has been consciously created and is consciously consumed.

Aaron Jourden, managing editor at Chicago-based Technomic, says this trend has been gaining steam, culminating in a demand for better chicken. “The idea of [better chicken] is taking a chef-inspired approach to more common or humble dishes, such as fried chicken or rotisserie chicken, and really elevating those from fast food to a sit-down meal,” he says. “[It’s about] using high-quality ingredients and a lot of attention to preparation detail.”

Within this overarching craze of “better chicken” exists a number of smaller trends — locally raised, fried, bold flavours, gourmet style and increased dark meat consumption — which all point back to cooking a better bird.

How Well Do You Know Your Chicken?
The local trend is nothing new, but when it comes to poultry, customers are asking questions. Chicken Farmers of Canada’s Data Booklet states 87 per cent of Canadians say they want the chicken they consume to be from Canada.

Customers are asking for local, organic, grain-fed and antibiotic-free chicken, however, Lisa Bishop-Spencer, manager of Communications for Chicken Farmers of Canada, says there’s still confusion around what labels mean and what is standard in Canadian-raised chicken. “People assume if a chicken is raised with antibiotics, that when they eat that chicken, they’re eating the antibiotics the chicken was fed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency checks for antibiotic residues in chicken and we haven’t had a violation in decades.” She also notes antibiotic use is being phased out in Canadian chicken operations over the next couple of years.

As diners become more informed and aware of the ingredients in their meals, there’s a push to educate the guest. “A lot of places will put the name of the farm or the source of the chicken on the menu to show its premium nature and quality aspects,” says Jourden. “It gives some authenticity to the restaurant’s menu if they can show where the chicken is from.”

Bishop-Spencer points out that the Chicken Farmers of Canada offers a branding program, “Raised by a Canadian Farmer,” available to restaurants free-of-charge as long as it can prove a Canadian farm is the origin of the chicken they sell. Both Montana’s and Swiss Chalet are among Canadian restaurants using the label. A&W offers transparency into its poultry sourcing — a dedicated page on its website introduces inquiring guests to the British Columbia- and Saskatchewan-based family farmers raising the chicken that ends up on the menu.

Shake your Tail Feather
Fried-chicken sales are on the rise, but consumer expectations are changing. No longer content with traditional buckets of fast-food chicken, today’s fried-chicken aficionados are craving perfect crispy skin, juicy flavour and sauces with ethnic and Southern influence.

Chef and partner Michael Angeloni of Union Chicken in Toronto — a chicken rotisserie restaurant — says fried chicken came to him as a request from customers. “It’s something I’ve always loved and wanted to do since day one, but we didn’t know if people would like it. Then, somebody came in and asked for it so I whipped it up, got great feedback and people loved it.”

Customers loved the Buttermilk Fried Chicken ($16) with hot sauce, maple-honey syrup and gravy so much the restaurant is relaunching the menu to include more fried-chicken offerings. “Our fried chicken is so popular that we’re rebranding it,” Angeloni says. The Nashville Hot chicken was only promoted on social media, but demand increased to the point that the menu is now split between rotisserie and fried chicken.

Birds with Big, Bold Flavour
Popularity of dishes such as Union Chicken’s Nashville Hot chicken shows multicultural influences are still on the rise, says Jourden. “What we’re seeing is an ethnic spin with an Asian influence. Korean gochujang or Sriracha sauce, Cajun influence from the U.S. south and Nashville-style hot — which is a basic hot sauce — but it’s being tagged with a region. What we’re seeing are the big, spicy flavours.”

The Fried-Chicken Sandwich Goes Gourmet
Naturally, the next step is to put the bird on a bun, says Jourden. “The gourmet chicken sandwich has taken off. Better chicken follows what we saw a few years ago with hamburgers and taking a premium approach. This has taken shape over a few years but recently we’re seeing it explode; whole restaurants being built around one signature fried-chicken sandwich with a few sides to complement it. Again, it’s really that attention to preparation, the quality of the chicken and sauces to complement it.”

Restaurants are taking note of the increased demand for fried-chicken sandwiches. Pegasus Group’s Fox & Fiddle Pubs in Ontario introduced a new menu this year, which included a fried-chicken sandwich with bacon, lettuce, tomato and jalapeño aioli ($16). Cineplex Entertainment’s The Rec Room locations in Edmonton and Toronto offer a Fried Chicken Caesar Sandwich featuring hand-breaded chicken, roasted soleggiati tomatoes (lightly dried and preserved in a garlic and oregano-flavoured oil), iceberg lettuce, parmigiano reggiano and Caesar dressing on a brioche bun ($17). On the East Coast, The Merchant Tavern in St. John’s serves up a Crispy Chicken Sandwich — a fried chicken thigh with lettuce and aioli ($18).

Flocking to Dark Meat
Thanks to multicultural influences, which are impacting both flavour and meat preference, dark meat is on the rise, offering restaurants an opportunity to work with cheaper cuts while bringing more diverse options to the menu. “What we see playing a major role is a greater presence of dark meat in the marketplace,” says Bishop-Spencer. “Traditionally it’s been about a 60/40 [white to dark meat] split in Canada, but we’re starting to see a bigger influence of multicultural diets, so you’re seeing a bit of a shift.”

Jourden agrees. “It’s a general trend we’ve seen taking shape over the years because [dark meat] is supposed to be more flavourful; it’s a little bit of a cheaper cut for the restaurant to bring in and it plays well with a lot of ethnic preparations.” Birds are bringing in big bucks in restaurants and as chefs continue to source high-quality meat to pair with global flavours, customers are finding a place on their plates for Canada’s most popular protein.

Volume 50, Number 5
Written by Andrea Victory

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