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C-Stores Heat Up Chicken Programs

Chicken offers c-stores an ideal platform for incorporating the bolder, hotter flavors customers crave.

Even as consumers’ tastes evolve and younger generations say, “the spicier, the better,” chicken remains a popular menu item for convenience stores. 

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2018, Americans were projected to have eaten a record 93 pounds of chicken per person.

Its unwavering popularity and serious versatility makes chicken a great platform for other trends, like flavor mash-ups and extra spice — and offers c-stores an easy way to balance innovation and convenience. 

Chicago-based market research firm Datassential’s SCORES database tracks limited-time offers (LTOs) and new product launches. The firm asks consumers to rate them on a variety of metrics in order to determine how appealing a product is and how likely it is to be successful.

“One of the things that I noticed with the high-scoring items is a use of chicken as a platform for a lot of other trends in the industry,” said Jackie Rodriguez, Datassential senior project manager. 

She said “chicken can go way beyond the traditional” — and cites the Buffalo Chicken Mac and Cheese Sub from Whitehouse Station, N.J.-based c-store chain QuickChek as an example.

“Buffalo chicken and mac and cheese are two of consumers’ favorite items, but because it’s a c-store item, where handhelds are really important, they put it in a submarine sandwich platform,” said Rodriguez. “And that did really well in terms of uniqueness.”

She said sandwiches are an easy way to incorporate new flavors and forms, but it’s certainly not the only option. Casey’s General Store, for example, also has Buffalo chicken on the menu: Buffalo Chicken Pizza.

Because pizza is so universally loved, yet consumers are increasingly adventurous when it comes to topping variety, this is a great area to integrate chicken with other trends, too.

The chain has several specialty pizzas that include chicken, such as a Chicken, Bacon & Ranch Pizza and Taco Pizza, which can be topped with either chicken or beef.

But Rodriguez said Caseys’ Spinach, Artichoke and Chicken Pizza, an LTO that began in March, was “almost off the charts in terms of consumer appeal.” 

“It might be because it’s something that they don’t always see at a c-store,” she said. “Pizza is a great platform for showcasing chicken, maybe with ingredients that customers haven’t seen before.”

Rodriguez said Datassential found that overall, boneless chicken is preferred for consumers on the go.

Phil Carper, of Phil’s One Stop, a c-store chain in northern Indiana and Ohio, partners with Broaster Co. for its chicken program at six of 18 total locations. He said boneless chicken options, like the chicken tenders, are one of the stores’ best-sellers. “It’s a great product,” he said.

KenJo Markets operator Helen Potter said customers at the company’s Johnson City, Tenn., location, also a Broaster partner, are “always looking for a good value” from chicken foodservice along with grab-and-go convenience. 

Her customers also happen to be looking for chicken liver. “We sell a lot of liver,” she said. “Forty pounds a day.”

Both she and Carper mentioned spicy popcorn chicken as one of the most popular offers, and Potter said customers who typically purchase spicy food are younger, in their 20s or 30s.

In fact, one of the most significant changes in consumer preference, particularly among young consumers, is an increased taste for spicy food. 

For example, Atlanta-based RaceTrac’s Nashville Hot Chicken Taquito has been a top seller since it launched on Feb. 6, according to Tiffany Plemmons, senior category manager for RaceTrac, which operates more than 500 stores in the Southeast. It’s now one of the company’s top roller grill products.

“We were excited to launch a new limited-time-offer product that resonated with our consumer as well as hit on a hot new trend — Nashville Hot Chicken,” said Plemmons. “The product has a hot, spicy flavor mixed with fried chicken with a hint of pickles.”

But spice doesn’t have to come from the chicken itself; sauce is an easy way to add an extra kick to any chicken product.

Potter said KenJo Markets’ house-made Buffalo sauce is a customer favorite for that reason.

“Honey mustard or ranch are the most popular sauces,” she said. “But if they want spicy, they get the Buffalo sauce.”

And a Datassential study shows that many customers do.

“We had people with a barbecue sauce or a mustard that can be spicy or not,” said Rodriguez. “About one-quarter of people said, ‘The spicier, the better. Just let me have it.’”

She attributes the increased popularity of spicy foods and sauces, in part, to “the emergence of global cuisines.” 

We’re more exposed to different cultures now than ever before — and we occupy more cultures, too. 

With more than 60 million members in the U.S, according to consulting firm BridgeWorks, Generation Z is larger than millennials and two-thirds the size of the baby boomers. 

And according to a Pew Research Center report, Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is not only the country’s largest generation, but also the most racially and ethnically diverse.

This means young consumers are familiar with a wider variety of cuisines than generations before. That’s not going to change, so retailers must adapt instead.

Many c-stores are adapting, adding not only Mexican foods like taquitos to the menu, but also Thai food, for example, like Pittsburgh-based GetGo’s Spicy Red Thai Chicken Curry, which Rodriguez said rated highly by consumers for both uniqueness and likelihood of purchase.

“Not necessarily that all of the food in, say, Thai cuisine is spicy, but certainly compared to traditional Italian food, for example, it has more complex and typically hotter spice levels,” said Rodriguez. “Spiciness overall is definitely trending.”

While some members of Gen Z might say, “the spicier, the better,” Rodriguez said it depends on the dish. But no matter an individual’s preference, she said most young consumers are more attuned to flavor complexity overall and how different spice levels enhance their food.