Coxwell and Gerrard is a non-descript Toronto intersection, but it looks like a winning location for Kevin Green and Amanda Louie. Operators of the Fully Loaded TO food truck since 2015, they soft-opened a bricks-and-mortar location, Birdies, last February and have been selling out their weekend-only OG Fried Chicken Sandwich and Nashville Hot Fried Chicken Sandwich (both $9.49) ever since. They’re looking forward to expanding their schedule soon.
At the other end of town, Jerome Robinson, known as The Heartbreak Chef, chose the Saturday before the world locked down (March 7, 2020) to park his five-year-old food truck and open his sandwich counter. He’s now a beloved fixture whose reputation rests on heart-busting handfuls such as his Dutty Chicken Sandwich with jerk sauce and Big Ass Chicken Sandwich (both $11.99).
As seemingly stable food businesses close their doors for good, such chicken-based one-offs and small Gen Z-friendly chains — such as Chica’s Chicken, PG Cluck’s, Hot Chicken — are proliferating in the Toronto area and across Canada, and diners are also showing turkey some love.
Milind “Mel” Palashetkar is director of operations for Vancouver’s Hi Five Chicken, a 24-hour fast-food concept that opened in 2016. Relying largely on marketing through SkipTheDishes, Hi Five saw its sales grow by 25 to 40 per cent in 2020 and is on track to do the same in 2021. It currently runs four corporate restaurants and is in the process of signing seven additional franchisees. “We have a roadmap of opening 10 to 20 stores by the end of 2022,” says Palashetkar. “I think the market will go up and up.”
Luckily, Canadian poultry supply is predicted to be stable. “We don’t see any changes; we’ve had chicken available throughout the pandemic, and we’ve been able to adapt and adjust our production to meet the demands of consumers,” says Lisa Bishop-Spencer, director of Brand and Communications for Chicken Farmers of Canada. This is especially significant since a 2020 Léger study showed that 93 per cent of Canadians prefer Canadian-sourced chicken.
Meanwhile, “production of turkey for the domestic market is currently expected to increase by six per cent this year,” says Darren Ference, chair of Turkey Farmers of Canada. Last year, “the sudden closure of sandwich and sub shops impacted demand for turkey breast meat,” he says, adding that increased retail sales compensated in some part.
The Think Turkey/Pensez Dindon campaign has been raising awareness of the turkey option, partly through QSR partnerships. For example, “this spring we were proud to partner with Subway to promote the launch of their new Sidekick Turkey Sandwich,” Ference says. The campaign will also be part of The Plate Pledge to support Canadian food charities, which will see some 100 Canadian restaurants create original turkey-based menu items later this fall.
“Poultry has been the largest consumed meat protein in Canada for many years now. That’s why it’s so astonishing that poultry consumption gained the most share relative to all other meat proteins consumed (by two per cent) over the course of the pandemic,” says Ipsos VP of Market Strategy & Understanding Asad Amin. Perceived healthiness and versatility are among the top poultry virtues.
“We’ve always prided ourselves on offering clean and fresh proteins, and I would say the chickens are leading the pack; they’re the number-1 protein to go along with our salad,” says Elio Zannoni, executive chef at Toronto’s Gusto 54 Restaurant Group, which owns Trattoria Nervosa, Gusto 101, Pai Northern Thai and Chubby’s Jamaican Chicken, among others. At Chubby’s, “jerk chicken is their staple; I think they’ve done surprisingly well though the pandemic,” he says.
As for versatility, Bishop-Spencer sees chicken in poke-bowl inspired Asian fusion “starting to play a role in QSR and casual dining.” She also mentions burrito bowls, Lebanese and Peruvian spice palettes and Indian-style butter chicken.
Michael Angeloni is the executive chef and operating partner at Open Concept Hospitality, which owns Union Chicken. Organic chicken is the focus at this young chain, and “our fried-chicken sandwiches are definitely the bread-and-butter,” he says, adding Korean-style fried chicken is an interesting option “because it’s steamed first; it’s not so heavy.” Union Chicken is currently adding a second, grab-and-go-style outlet in Toronto’s Union Station.
Hot spices are the top chicken trend, whether it’s Nashville-style, piri piri or Mexican. (Hence Wendy’s new Jalapeño Popper Sandwich and McDonald’s Ghost Pepper, Szechuan and Spicy Habanero McChicken sandwiches.)
“People like an authenticity and almost a story to where the spice comes from,” says Ira Dubinsky, marketing director for KFC Canada. “Is this a ghost pepper or jalapeño or scotch-bonnet pepper?”
Restaurants of all descriptions are riding the chicken wave. Philippines-based fast-food chain Jollibee added two Canadian stores in January, bringing its store count to 16, while nine more Canadian outlets are planned in 2021. In May, Church’s Chicken re-branded as Church’s Texas Chicken and announced plans to add nearly 30 Canadian locations in 2021 to its existing roster of 37, plus another 70 over the next three years.
In April, Quebec rotisserie chain Benny&Co. launched a new concept with its 66th rotisserie. The downtown-Montreal location includes a dining-room, bar area and ready-to-eat counter suited to small urban venues, a model that will spread throughout the chain with five more Quebec locations set to open this summer.
Poultry passion is fuelling pandemic innovation. Ontario-based SIR Corp, which operates such brands as Jack Astor’s and Canyon Creek, created Renegade Chicken, a scratch kitchen dishing up fried-chicken sandwiches, fingers and wings. It was serving 25 Ontario locations via major delivery apps and SIR Corp’s proprietary Inspired Rewards app but in June, Renegade Chicken announced it was closing all of its ghost-kitchen operations at Jack Astor’s, while maintaining its Duke’s St. Lawrence Market pop-up location. Lone Star Texas Grill has launched a restaurant-inside-a-restaurant called Frankie’s Nashville Hot Chicken that offers fried chicken in many variations for pickup and delivery.
Written by Sarah B. Hood