In the current foodservice environment, many operators are re-assessing menus and, in many cases, chicken remains at the heart of offerings. However, the protein hasn’t been unaffected by COVID-19 disruptions and shifting consumer expectations.
As COVID-19 crippled foodservice operations, demand for chicken felt the impact. “All of a sudden we had a good percentage of our market that wasn’t being met because of COVID-19 and the closures in foodservice, so we had to adjust our production,” explains Lisa Bishop-Spencer, director of Brand and Communications, Chicken Farmers of Canada.
“Foodservice represents about 40 per cent of our production. A lot of that was picked up by the increase in retail [sales], but not enough to make up that gap.”
She notes decreased foodservice sales, combined with processing interruptions, required Canada’s chicken supply management system to be flexible and production allocation was adjusted accordingly to prevent flooding the market. This meant reductions of approximately 10 per cent from June to September. “We decide how much chicken is going to be grown for [each] eight-week period,” says Bishop-Spencer. “As of September, we’re at close to normal levels – we’re still below base compared to last year, but the numbers are coming back up.”
And, with the supply chain impacted, Colin Burslem, Culinary director for Surrey, B.C.-based Joseph Richard Group, says it created a few challenges for foodservice operators. “We had a couple of hiccups where we had to switch to a frozen-chicken product just because of the lack of supply, as it had been bought up by retail,” he explains. “We’ve noticed the supply of poultry product has been down. And, even with something as simple as chicken wings, the price variances in the last few months have been massive. [We’ve seen] a $3- to $4-per-kilo price difference in chicken wings in just a three-month span.”
As Bishop-Spencer explains, challenges at the procesing level also played a role, noting the availability of more labour-intensive cuts, such as boneless-skinless, was impacted by social distancing and other measures put in place in processing plants. “You might have seen a little bit more whole chicken or bone-in, skin-on cuts available, but, if you wanted chicken, you were able to get it,” she says.
During these unique times, consumer behaviour has shifted in a number of ways, giving rise to new trends. “Looking long-term, the biggest obstacle operators, suppliers and distributors will face is their consumers’ changed dining habits,” says Sophie Mir, associate editor at Technomic.
One example: the pandemic has heightened Canadians’ penchant for Canadian products. “An independent poll showed 93 per cent of Canadians are looking for Canadian meat at their meat counters and restaurants,” shares Bishop-Spenser. “[For restaurants,] the pivot needs to happen in terms of letting Canadians know they’re delivering on [their] expectations for Canadian chicken.
We already knew there was a high demand for Canadian products, but now we’ve seen that increase [because] Canadians want to become more self-reliant.”
Pointing to Chicken Farmers of Canada’s ‘Raised-by-a-Canadian-Farmer’ logo, she adds “the marks that are coming out from us — and beef, pork and [other farmer organizations] — are the marks consumers are looking for.”
Prior to the pandemic, Mir notes plant-based ‘chicken’ products had been a growing offering in restaurants over the past year.
“The plant-based momentum did slow down during the pandemic, but we’re seeing it starting to pick up again and anticipate more innovative plant-based chicken selections to emerge,” she explains, pointing to improved taste, appearance and texture as focuses. “This macro trend of plant-based options, including plant-based chicken, will remain vital, proven by the fact that consumers — especially younger ones — continue to prioritize health and sustainable initiatives even through the pandemic.”
And, while Canadians’ eating habits have been shifting, with alternative diets on the rise, Bishop-Spenser notes, “[Chicken] has already been used as a healthy alternative to other proteins and its place in the market is secure. In terms of most diets outside of veganism, chicken delivers on those expectations.” As she points out, chicken is well suited to the preferences of those who prescribe to keto, paleo, low-carb and clean-label diets.
“In terms of meat…there are very few commodities that offer as much choice as chicken does,” she adds, noting the availability of chicken that is organic, grain fed, free range, et cetera.
“Even though plant-based options are gaining popularity, it’s important to note there’s a significant number of consumers still having a hard time warming up to plant-based options,” adds Mir. “In fact, according to Technomic’s data, almost a quarter (22 per cent) of consumers disagree that vegetarian/vegan meat substitutes taste just as good as real meat. This is even higher among older consumers, ages 35-plus.”
Running counter to this trend, is demand for more indulgent and comforting offerings. “Operators should market their chicken with this in mind, knowing that while some might be looking for a health-forward chicken alternative, others want chicken as a comfort food or a way to indulge,” shares Mir. “Chicken items have been, and continue to be, in demand this past year, especially throughout the pandemic.”
This can be attributed to demand for value-focused offerings, as well as the fact consumers have increasingly gravitated toward comfort foods during these unprecedented times. According to Technomic data, 31 per cent of consumers say they’re buying more value items and 40 per cent state they’re buying more comfort foods from restaurants compared to before the pandemic. “In response to this demand for value items and comfort foods, we’ve been seeing operators highlight chicken-based value/family bundles or snacking items,” Mir adds.
“The biggest trend I’d been seeing in regard to chicken, pre-pandemic, was that everybody was looking to get fried chicken onto their menu in some way, shape or form and utilize the whole bird versus just specific cuts,” says Burslem. “We were seeing that from luxury-hotel operators all the way through to mom-and-pop operations.”
Fried chicken has remained a popular offering as operators have shifted to a greater focus on takeout and delivery, which Burslem attributes to its ability to hold and travel well, as well as its wide appeal. “There’s a ton of different varieties of fried chicken — from Korean fried chicken to Vietnamese fried chicken to Southern fried chicken,” he adds, noting fried chicken from JRG’s virtual concept, Master Chicken, has been one of the company’s top-selling items through its delivery platforms.
Further illustrating this point, a survey of Canadian and U.S. DoorDash users also found 41 per cent of customers are tired of cooking chicken, however they haven’t tired of ordering it in. According to data from DoorDash, during the first half of 2020, chicken dishes — particularly those featuring international flavours — were among the top takeout orders in Canada. Among the national top-20 list was butter chicken, chicken lettuce wraps, chicken quesadillas, chicken shawarma and chicken tacos.
“There are cultural influences that are really starting to come to the fore. Whole-roasted chicken on Sunday was the number-1 meat choice for a long time; now we’re seeing more Asian influences coming into people’s dietary choices,” says Bishop-Spencer. “We’re lucky to be in a position where chicken is a staple in the diet of people around the world, so there’s lots of variety [and] choices available to people.”
“Chicken is so versatile,” agrees Burslem. “It’s not just a stir-fry [or] a grilled chicken breast any more…it’s trying to introduce new flavour profiles and creative cooking methods to [keep] it relevant and really open people up to see that a chicken doesn’t have to be thrown in the oven to bake — there’s a whole lot more you can do with it.”
Burslem explains he’s been working on a number of projects, looking at ways to better utilize chicken in JRG’s menus while remaining relevant and fresh. “It’s trying to find ways it can be utilized in multi-purpose ways for our menus and stay appealing to everybody.”
And, according to Mir, this drive to differentiate with chicken menu items is mirrored across foodservice. “Obviously, chicken is a pretty standard and common meat, so operators have been experimenting with unique breading to stand apart from competitors and offer new flavours in their chicken-based options. For example, KFC Canada tested barbecue chicken tenders, which were made by adding Lay’s Barbecue potato chips.”
Though these efforts were largely halted during the height of the pandemic, as operators pared back menus for restricted operations, innovation is still taking place. Mir points to value-driven chicken snacks as a new trend that’s emerged during the pandemic, with items such as KFC’s Hot & Spicy Popcorn Chicken launching over the summer. FH
Due to its impact on demand and production, COVID-19 has affected meat prices in Canada. According to Statistics Canada’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) for July, month-over-month prices for fresh or frozen chicken rose 6.6 per cent in July after a 4.4-per-cent decline in June. The report notes chicken prices have benefitted from strong demand and lower production, on top of seasonal demand for chicken during the summer months. At a regional level, monthly pricing changes were most notable in the western Canadian provinces.