Diners Are Flocking to Innovative Chicken Offerings

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In Edmonton, a remarkable success story is unfolding at a reimagined Korean restaurant. Located in the historic Old Strathcona area, Seoul Fried Chicken sells whole and half chickens, but the big seller is the Five-Piece Set with fries or corn fritters, salad and pop ($11); the restaurant sells more than150 daily — “easily,” says owner Jake Lee.

“This was a full-fledged Korean restaurant for 16 years. It was a struggle,” Lee says. Last February, he reopened with a focus on seven unusual fried-chicken flavours, such as cilantro-lime with chimichurri; G.P Cheese with grated Grano Padano; and Golden Kari with bright yellow Japanese curry powder. Sides are also somewhat daring: Kale Caesar with beet chips and truffle oil, Sesame Potato Slaw and, of course, house-made kimchi. “People are starting to get comfortable with the menu, so they order a half or whole chicken,” Lee says. “That was my goal: to get a cheap entry.”

Lee’s experience shows how much Canadian diners love chicken — if it’s handled in a creative way. According to Kristin Menas, associate editor, Canada & Adult Beverage with Chicago-based Technomic Inc., the ordinary roast chicken dinner is losing popularity, with chicken entrées down by 12.5 per cent overall in the past year. However, handheld options and international influences are booming: in the past two years, chicken burgers are up by 5.3 per cent and kabobs have risen by 12.5 per cent.

“From a menu standpoint it’s the third-most consumed category in Canada, after coffees and red meats,” says Robert Carter, executive director, Foodservice with Toronto-based NPD Group. The category is growing, he says, thanks to its reputation as a healthy food choice. “Tied into that, chicken seems to be a good carrier food for some of the ethnic trends.”

And there’s always room for a creative chef to win diners over with an inspired interpretation. In Winnipeg, for instance, Bonfire Bistro offers Manitoba chicken breast topped with Sambuca-poached fig demi-glace and goat cheese with potatoes and a vegetable ($26) and wood-fired paella with chicken, chorizo, clams, prawns, mussels, sea scallop, green onions, tomatoes and peas on saffron rice ($28). Blind Tiger Coffee Co. — a café by day and a restaurant by night — serves Poulet à la Dubrovnik ($23), a chicken breast with shrimp mousse, wild rice and dill beurre blanc, served with a chef’s-choice side.

Jordan Carlson, chef de cuisine at Winnipeg’s Deseo Bistro, reports batter-fried chicken (served with house hot sauce for $5 per piece) is a fan favourite. “We brine it overnight and then we cold-smoke it, marinate it in buttermilk and fry it,” he says.

THE WELL-TRAVELLED BIRD
The general fascination with exploring as-yet-undiscovered international cuisines is alive and well, as illustrated by the success of Seoul Fried Chicken. “People already know about Mexican flavours; we’re seeing more specific types of ethnic flavours,” says Menas. Jerk, Cajun, Creole, Indian and Korean influences are on the rise, but the interest in spiciness has shifted away from fiery heat towards milder sweet-spicy combinations.

In Vancouver, one-off spots serving Asian-style fried chicken wings are booming, such as Zabu Chicken and Red Chicken Korean Restaurant (both offering Korean-style wings) and the Vietnamese-Cambodian outlet Phnom Penh.

Menas offers numerous examples of chains with new offerings fitting this niche: Prime Pubs’ Chicken Roti Wrap with vindaloo curry sauce and house-made sweet chili-apple chutney; Royal Oak Pubs’ Chicken Tikka Masala Pasty; Jugo Juice’s Kimchi, Chicken and Avocado Wrap; Church’s Chicken Canada’s Mango Habanero Chicken, and Wendy’s Canada’s Jalapeño Fresco Spicy Chicken. Nando’s peri-peri chicken concept also fits this trend perfectly.

BUILDING A BETTER CHICKEN?
“The biggest development over the last few years is what I’ll call the sustainability area,” says Robin Horel, president and CEO of the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council. Consumers are asking more questions about where and how their food is produced. Many factors contribute to the perception of sustainability, ranging from the carbon footprint to consumers’ health and animal welfare.

“Antibiotic-free” chicken has become a hot topic lately; but Horel says consumers often misunderstand the terminology. “All chicken [for consumption] in Canada is antibiotic-free,” he says. “We have testing for residue; we have a strong system as to when antibiotics must be withdrawn from feed. What we really mean is ‘raised without antibiotics’ [RWA]: during the life of those birds, no antibiotics were used.”

Thus, conventionally raised birds are given antibiotics when they become ill, but they cannot be sold as food until the medication has passed out of their systems. RWA chicken may never receive any antibiotics at all, so if they become sick, the chicken producer must choose between selling them to a different market or withholding treatment, and “if you don’t treat them, there’s an animal welfare issue,” Horel says, noting every change in the production system comes with potential repercussions.

Chipotle Mexican Grill and Panera Bread have been sourcing some RWA chicken for many years. A&W laid claim to being the first national fast-food restaurant serving exclusively RWA birds in Canada. Last October, Subway announced it would make the transition to RWA in the U.S., but not in Canada, while McDonald’s Canada committed to completing a transition to RWA by 2018.

TURNING A PROFIT
Oven-roasted chicken is out of style this year, but diners can’t seem to get enough of rotisserie concepts. On March 31, Ontario-based Cara Operations Limited solidified its hold on this niche in the family-dining category when it acquired Quebec’s beloved Groupe St-Hubert Inc., which comprises 117 restaurants generating about $403 million annually. However, rotisserie is strong for every kind of restaurant.

In Toronto, for instance, Flock Rotisserie, which opened in June 2015, focuses on RWA Ontario chicken (whole for $18 and half for $9.50 with no sides). It’s one of many establishments catering to the takeout audience. “People want to eat healthy food and rotisserie chicken is really healthy,” says manager Rinkesh Toshniwal.

Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud in the Four Seasons Hotel has added a French Rotisol to offer an approachable atmosphere, serving lovingly prepared Demi poulet with potatoes and one side for $29 and Poulet à la broche with potatoes and two sides for $68. “We want guests to feel comfortable,” says chef de cuisine Sylvain Assié. “When you have a chicken in front of you, you don’t have to cherish what’s on your plate.”

A BIRD IN THE HAND 
“Another focus is clearly the innovation platform,” says Carter. Many chains are experimenting with handheld offerings and creative sides. For instance, gourmet burger chain Red Robin launched a contest to name its butterflied chicken breast with cheese, bacon, arugula and tomato aioli on a bun. Based on customer response, it joined the menu under the name Marco Pollo.

In April, McDonald’s Canada launched The 12, a crispy or grilled chicken breast sandwich with cheese ($5.99). Menas also mentions the adventurous chicken finger offerings on Kelsey’s spring menu ($12.99): Clucky Chicken Parm with tomato sauce, parmesan and mozzarella; Coco Loco with coconut milk, shredded coconut and chopped peanuts; and Sweet and Salty, with a sweet caramel sauce and a coating of crushed pretzels.

“They’re very bold-looking, a unique take on an otherwise very common item,” Menas says. “There’s a lot of opportunity for chicken.”

Volume 49, Number 5 
Written By Sarah B. Hood

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