How is the chicken industry keeping up with the latest consumer trends? Ask farmers.
Back to basics
Consumer trends usually come out of foodservice. But what if the latest flavor shifts came from the farms?
There’s no denying the popularity of chicken. According to the USDA, total chicken per capita consumption should reach 94.3 pounds in 2019.
“With chicken consumption at an all-time high and measurably above competing proteins, both primary chicken producer/processors and downstream further processors are devoting more time, attention and resources to adding value to their marketing,” says Tom Super, senior vice president of communications, National Chicken Council, based in Washington, D.C.
That’s certainly the aim of new company, New York-based Cooks Venture, which is partnering with FreshDirect to create and sell pasture-raised, slow-growth, heirloom chickens. Founded by Blue Apron’s co-founder, Matthew Wadiak, the processor wants to provide chicken that is more palatable and transparent.
“First of all, I think of consumer concerns about the industrial food system,” says Wadiak. “But I’m also looking at my concerns over the food I’m being served. It was apparent to me as a chef that quality product is largely not available in scale in our country.”
According to Wadiak, true pasture products are growing 72 percent, while the natural meat and poultry category continues to increase by 17%. “Heritage poultry, however, is generally not accessible,” he says.
To that end, Cooks Venture purchased an 800-acre farm in Arkansas and processing facilities in Oklahoma, so it can process 700,000 heritage chickens a week – for $15 to $20 a chicken.
The Cooks Venture team will be selling chickens that are a different genetic breed than what is generally found in the grocery store, bred to be healthy and strong but still delicious.
“The breast meat is more moist, while the dark meat is incredible and crispy,” says Wadiak.
As part of its regenerative agriculture initiative, its feed will contain less synthetics and employ crop rotations and carbon sequestration for improved soil health.
“We want to define what the trends are,” says Wadiak. “I assume people want what I want: great taste and transparency.”
Embracing better-for-you combinations
Not every processor can launch a new poultry breed. But other processors are embracing better-for-you combinations to also appeal to health conscious consumers.
John Soules Foods has been developing products with bold flavors.
One trend that will likely evolve into a more permanent place in the marketing of chicken is the addition of vegetables and vegetable ingredients in combination with chicken, notes Super.
“This development is already clearly established with dinner and gourmet chicken sausages where a variety of vegetables are blended with whole muscle meat,” says Super.
Increased offerings of chicken chunks mixed with popular vegetables are being rolled-out by a handful of companies with more to follow.
“These products reach beyond stir fry and bowls and are positioned as good-to-go center of the plate meals,” says Super.
More offerings of chicken that have vegetable ingredients substituting for more traditional ingredients, such as wheat and corn breadings, are appearing in the market. “One interesting example is fried chicken with a cauliflower powder mixture coating, rather than the traditional breading,” says Super.
The trend extends well beyond bone-in/skin-on chicken to nuggets, tenders and patties.
“As this type of approach proves successful, it is anticipated that both other vegetable flours and plant-based coatings will be promoted in combination with chicken,” says Super. “Chicken corn dogs may become chicken cauliflower dogs.”
Adding sugar and spice
Bold, spicy flavors show no signs of cooling down at restaurants or retail, either. John Soules Foods, for one, specializes in fajita meat, and the company been increasing its chicken production until it’s more than half of what they do.
“Consumers tend to push trends at restaurants before they reach retail,” notes Tim Cairns, senior director of marketing, John Soules Foods, based in Tyler, Texas. “And the younger market, in particular, likes sweet and spicy combinations.”
Creating new products is definitely a team effort. The John Soules Foods team is always being updated by restaurants, vendors and spice suppliers on current trends, and usually has 50+ foodservice items in development.
ProSticks by Expresco Foods shows that chicken fits into the meat snack category as well.
“We follow consumer data and trends on what’s in and out of style,” says Cairns. “But we also look to create a more lasting product, because trends that are hot today may not be popular tomorrow.”
The John Soules Foods team has about seven new retail products in the works, which are tending toward bolder flavors. “The younger generation is demanding more bold and international inspired flavors,” says Cairns.
It appears that spicy flavors + quality meat are no longer trends, but an expectation – even with snacks. “We take a two-tiered approach with our products: bolder, hot spicy flavors that consumers are looking for and high quality, 100% breast meat,” says Michael Delli Colli, marketing manager, retail development, Expresco Foods, based in Montreal.
High-protein products are trending, and the snack category is growing – whether it’s meat snacks like beef jerky or snack packs with chicken, prosciutto or nuts with cheese and apples.
“Our chicken skewers are a traditional but contemporary product, because they are handheld and portable,” says Delli Colli.
Expresco Foods’ chicken skewers have been sold for 30 years, but in the past five to six years have entered Costco and then convenience stores. “Our product is still the same though: better for you, 100% chicken breast,” says Delli Colli. “Bolder flavors have become more popular, whether it’s regular BBQ, ghost peppers or Japanese spices.”
As the convenience store market merges into retail, demand will continue for healthy, better-for-you products – even with snacks.
“That’s what we’re good at,” says Delli Colli. “We try to find the right balance between cravings and quality.”
That may just be the key to all the current market trends.
“Success in these endeavors to add value to products can be enhanced by not just adroitly capturing the eating trends resonating the most with consumers but also remembering to re-enforce the key basic attributes of taste, value and convenience,” says Super.