Sales of rotisserie chicken are soaring, and deli and food-service executives interviewed by SN say that at least for the moment, the sky's the limit.
One reported sales up 25% to 30% in the last six months. Others had strong sales reports to crow about, although some added a note of caution that the popularity of roast chicken from the deli could be a fad.
With busy, health-conscious consumers plucking up the chickens as fast as they come off the rotisserie, retailers are working hard to make the most of the strong demand while it lasts.
Some are adding marinated chickens to their product mix, along with chickens coated with mesquite and lemon-herb flavors. Others are using branded poultry that shoppers are used to finding in the meat case.
Many retailers are rolling out a rotisserie program to more or all of their stores, while some are jumping into it for the first time.
A combination of elements has laid the groundwork for the sales takeoff. Among them are consumer perceptions that roasted chicken is healthy because it's not fried, and that it's super fresh because they can see it cooking. They also see it as a good value, and an inexpensive way to feed a family, retailers said.
Recently, fast-food chains have been touting those very features in a barrage of local and national advertising, and supermarket deli executives aren't complaining.
"We feel that restaurants' rotisserie chicken sales have increased consumer awareness and expanded the market," said Cheryl Robertson, manager of consumer affairs at Dominick's Finer Foods, Northlake, Ill.
"I'm glad the Colonel's doing what he's doing," said Michael Knisley, deli-bakery director for 23-unit Consumers Markets, Springfield, Mo., referring to KFC's recent TV ads for its new rotisserie chicken program.
Even in the South, where fried
chicken is a staple, rotisserie chicken is growing in popularity.
"There's a KFC or Kenny Rogers opening up on every corner down here," said Ginger Edwards, deli-bakery director for B&B Cash Grocery Co., Tampa, Fla., which operates 24 units called U Save. "That's certainly raising the consciousness level of consumers. And their prices are twice as high as ours." A source at Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets recently said rotisseried chicken sales there are nearly neck and neck with fried. The chain, with 400-plus units across the Southeast, has produced a flier listing three flavors of "rotisserie cooked chicken hot off the spit." They're $5.49 for a whole chicken and $2.99 for a half. Side dishes, listed alongside the chickens, include steamed parsley potatoes and fresh minted carrots for 99 cents a half pint, $1.89 a pint and $3.69 a quart.
Whole meal concepts and more frequent ads are part of the action retailers are taking to call attention to the fact that "we have those chickens, too."
But in the flurry of activity, there are operational challenges that must be faced. Keeping the product top-quality while keeping it warm, making sure it's thoroughly cooked and making it look its best are just a few. SN talked to retailers in different markets about their chicken programs. Here's what they had to say.
Cheryl Robertson manager, consumer affairs Dominick's Finer Foods Northlake, Ill.
We've been promoting our rotisserie chickens frequently since we began using a marinated chicken in December. We carry three kinds -- Italian, seasoned and plain -- in all 84 of our stores.
Just recently we've begun testing hot side dishes to go with the chicken in six of our stores. They include corn, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, zucchini and tomatoes. It's too early to tell how that's doing.
Deli executive at a top-10 chain
We've just added flavors -- honey, lemon-pepper, mesquite and garlic-herb. We'll be featuring a chicken of the week, and we're going to be having more in the cold case, about 3 feet. We're making room simply by piling other things up, consolidating.
We're seeing more acceptance of the product because of the Boston Chickens and Kenny Rogers of the world.
I think the biggest challenge is maintaining the integrity of the product: making sure it reaches the internal temperature that's necessary and that it have a golden look. But I think the biggest mistake some people make is to cook too many at one time. There shouldn't be any in the warm case before 10 a.m. and after three hours it's obscene to keep it if it isn't sold.
It depends on the store, but in some we only cook five at a time. But that's one of the reasons I'm increasing the number of chilled ones, to reduce shrink.
I don't know how long growth will continue. This may be a fad.
Ginger Edwards deli-bakery director B&B Cash Grocery's U Save Supermarkets Tampa, Fla.
We added a marinated rotisserie chicken three months ago, but we aren't doing real well with it yet. We have a very price-conscious clientele and so far they seem to prefer our regular rotisserie birds at $3.49 each.
The marinated in three flavors -- preseasoned, 11-herb and barbecue -- are $4.99, but it's a big 3.5-pound bird. We've just put it in our ad for $3.99. I think that will attract people. We took on the marinated birds because we wanted to be competitive with quality. There's just no comparison between the marinated and the regular. I instruct my staff that if anyone complains about the price, they should cut the birds open and sample them side by side. That's the best way to get it across. It's more personalized (than a demo). It'll sell it quicker than anything.
We had hoped to delete our nonmarinated entirely, but so far our clientele won't allow us. But I think the marinated will catch on. It just takes time.
Diane Velasquez director of delis B&R Stores Lincoln, Neb.
When we had a Boston Chicken open up here recently, we didn't waste any time putting together a whole bird dinner that includes four rolls, butter, potatoes and vegetables or slaw for $6.99.
We also put up an easel sign in our conventional stores promoting our "Roto Birds." We just gave them that name to attract attention to them. The sign asks customers to compare our prices with the fast-food chicken places. We're selling ours for $3.99 each at our conventional stores and $3.58 at our Super Saver stores, and that's for a 2.75-pound to 3-pound bird.
We also tested a freestanding, self-service warm case for roasted chickens and it was amazing what that did. We had it right across from our hot case. It was all extra sales and I think it even increased sales from the regular hot case where we also had chicken. During the two-month test, total chicken sales were up 50% over the same period a year before. We will definitely put a similar case in permanently.
Executive at a large Midwestern chain
Our sales of rotisserie chickens are up 10% to 20% from last year, in identical stores, where we haven't made any changes. I'm sure the KFC ads have helped quite a bit. They're on TV twice during the evening. And their prices are so much higher than ours.
We've added rotisseries in all our stores this past year. Previously, we had them in about two-thirds of them. We have lemon-herb and barbecue flavors. There's a problem if you have a big variety and don't keep it all the time. People try something and like it and it annoys them if you don't have it the next time they come in. I think it's ideal to have two or three varieties and offer them every day.
Ours aren't marinated. I think there's some controversy over that, whether it keeps them moist or they're just pumped up with water that drips out.
We don't have a meal package. They always want to substitute something. We do make sure we take the opportunity to do some suggestive selling. We have items on the hot table that could go with them.
The biggest challenge is knowing how many to cook ahead of time. You do that by keeping good records and then gambling a little if, for example, the weather turns great.
Ron Carignan director, deli/seafood operations Demoulas Supermarkets Tewksbury, Mass.
Our sales are better than ever. We've always had a good, aggressive rotisserie program. We've been doing this for 35 years when our competitors were into fried chicken.
There's good growth because there's so much written about the healthy aspects of the product and it tastes good, too. They've gotten so much exposure with ads by the restaurant chains it couldn't help but add to our sales.
We're happy with our program the way it is. We have it in all 51 stores. We haven't made any changes recently. It's $1.99 a pound and we seldom put it on special. And we don't offer side dishes with it. We want to keep it simple.
Phillip Salerno president Frank's Family Foods Management Winfield, Ill.
We raised the price of our rotisserie chicken and made it a meal. We put it together with two salads and bread, and we're charging $8.26. We're just doing that now, with a $3-off coupon. So actually the package comes to $5.26.
For the chicken alone, we raised the price from $3.99 to $4.39 each. Our competition's is $4.49. We have a plain and a salt-free variety. Rotisserie chicken has always been a good program, but it's going to get better. It became a profit center. It's easy to make.
The biggest challenge in doing this right is making sure the chicken is cooked at the proper temperature. When we have had a complaint, it's been because the chicken was a little pink in the thigh. We're making sure we throw the thermometer right into the thigh to see that it's up to the right temperature.
Michael Knisley director, deli-bakery Consumers Markets Springfield, Mo.
I'm glad the Colonel is doing what he's doing. We've doubled sales of our rotisserie chickens in the last few months. Some of that can be attributed, I'm sure, to all the Colonel's advertising, but some may be because we changed our package to a dome pack.
It looks better and it's easier. We used to use foil and it stayed hot so the customer couldn't pick up the chicken.
Our sales are good, but I'd like to make more money on these chickens. At $2.99, our gross isn't that good, but we have a certain clientele that wants this product because it's healthier. We're going to add a lemon flavor this week. The biggest challenge is maintaining quality. We do a couple of cookings a day and we make sure to take temperature at the thigh. I think, too, the color is important. We use hickory to smoke them; it gives them a nice color.
Store source National Tea Co.'s Garden Market Ladue, Mo.
Our rotisserie chicken sales are up a good 25% to 30% from six months ago. It may be due in part to adding several new flavors, including blackened, Cajun, lemon-herb and barbecued. Right after we added the flavors, sales jumped 10% to 15%.
We're cooking these continually all day to keep up. We sell 150 to 200, chilled down, from the self-service case in a day at this store. And people order them hot, too, at the service counter.
I don't know if the fast-food advertising has helped sales. I think customers want convenience and they see this as a good value ($3.49 each). Buying a chicken raw is going to be not that much less. This makes a quick meal.
Roy L. Foster owner Fosters Foods Bryant, Ark.
We're in the process of remodeling one of our stores and we'll definitely be adding rotisserie chicken. We'll have a variety, like lemon-pepper and others.
We have a really good fried chicken that we sell gobs of, but we'll add rotisserie because it's a healthy choice.
Glen Sapaugh bakery-deli manager Country Mart Salem, Mo.
We use a large marinated chicken in four flavors. Its regular price is $1.39 a pound, but we're putting it on special every other week for $1.19 a pound in our ad now.
One of the challenges is making them look good. You have to use fresh hickory to smoke them for that good color.
Official large Northeastern chain
It's easy to do rotisserie chicken. It displays well. Customers can see it cooking, so they know it's fresh, home-cooked. I think there's a lot of room for growth because they're so versatile, and people see this product as healthy. We'll be adding marinated varieties.