With every ringing in of the new year, I’m asked to look into my crystal ball and make predictions about the restaurant industry and menu trends. Most of the questions I’m asked relate to the most consumed animal protein in the world: chicken. In fact, it’s forecast that in 2022, Americans will consume more than 97 billion pounds of chicken. Not surprisingly, most of the questions that restaurant operators ask relate to how they can keep their customers coming back, clamoring for more chicken. Three of the most common questions I’m asked about chicken are: “What should I add to my menu and why, and how will it impact my bottom line?”
Well, as with all predictions, there are no guarantees, but here’s what I believe is coming down the poultry pike in 2022. Let’s start with the first question: “What should I add to my menu?”
Serve Up: Versatility
From tasty tenders and boneless nuggets to fried chicken sandwiches and crispy wings, chicken is perhaps the most versatile protein on menus today. That versatility will play an even greater role in 2022 due to supply chain-generated shortages and spiking poultry prices. To help foodservice operators navigate through these challenging times, we’ve put together a series of free chicken guides filled with insights on how to serve up consistently legendary chicken every time, tips on raking in poultry profits, and much more. Click here to download the first guide.
Embrace the Whole Bird
Surging restaurant demand and labor shortages mean operators are going to continue to pay more for premium cuts of chicken. In 2021, the price for chicken breasts more than doubled, and while the price for bone-in chicken wings saw more modest increases, in at least one quarter of 2021, bone-in chicken wing prices surged by more than 80 percent. All of this translates into higher menu prices. One way restaurant operators can hedge their bets, as it were, is to consider a whole-bird strategy.
What’s that? It’s buying more of the bird, including the thighs. So, instead of paying top dollar for just chicken breasts or wing pieces, operators who buy more parts of the chicken may realize a savings by negotiating with their suppliers. It’s a cost-saving strategy that’s working for 10-location chain, Wing It On, which did just that and introduced “thigh wings” to its menu in 2021.
The Thighs Have It!
This less expensive, dark-meat cut of chicken is juicy, flavorful, and in my estimation, will be 2022’s chicken star. Traditionally available at chicken-only chains, like KFCs and Church’s Chicken, as well as many independent, family-style restaurants, chicken thighs are now finding a prominent place on more quick-service restaurant (QSR) and fast casual menus.
Of course, seasoning, sauces and cooking method are all critical to whatever thigh item you add to your menu. It’s a recipe that Wingstop, which owns more than 1,400 restaurants worldwide, believes is working. In mid-2021, Wingstop launched its virtual restaurant brand, Thighstop, which features bone-in thighs and boneless thigh bites coated in one of its 11 flavored sauces.
In the coming months, I believe we’ll see even more restaurants adding chicken thighs to their menus and recent news headlines would seem to support that trend. Are chicken thighs destined to become the new wings? Well, maybe (that’s a big maybe); click here for my take on it.
Serve Up: Innovation
“Why Innovation?’ ties into the second question restaurant operators often ask me. 2022 will present both challenges and opportunities for restaurant operators. We’ve already discussed many of the challenges, but for those willing to embrace innovation, 2022 could be a game changer. Let’s start with chicken on the menu.
Beginning in 2019 and continuing on through 2020 and 2021, we saw the escalation of the chicken sandwich wars. It seemed there was no end in sight to the number of new chicken sandwiches and chicken biscuits appearing on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus at QSRs, fast casuals and casual-dining chains all vying to gain more market share. In the final analysis, while supply and demand contributed to higher prices for chicken breasts, the “war” has been a good thing in some respects. Restaurants, eager to cash in on this opportunity, upped their game in an effort to create the tastiest, most tantalizing chicken sandwich, and consumers rewarded their favorites at restaurants by eating them up, literally.
While I don’t see our love affair with chicken sandwiches and wings cooling anytime soon, the “war” may be over, or, at the very least, enjoying a temporary cease fire.
Plant-based Chicken Wars?
In addition to chicken sandwiches, many restaurant operators are adding less-expensive chicken-like, plant-based sandwiches, nuggets and buckets of fried “chicken” to their menus.
That’s right, buckets of fried faux chicken. In early January, Yum Brands, the parent company of KFC, announced that it will start selling buckets of plant-based fried “chicken” nuggets from Beyond Meat across the United States. Even though the company says it’s for a “limited time,” the Beyond Fried Chicken rollout speaks to the trend gaining increasing traction with consumers.
Other QSRs which have either added plant-based chicken to their menus or are testing it include Burger King, which is serving vegan chicken nuggets in the United Kingdom and testing its 8-piece Impossible nuggets at select restaurants in the U.S., Domino’s UK, which is selling vegan-chicken pizza, and Panda Express, which is selling Beyond the Original Organic Chicken for a limited time only at select locations. To find out more about other brands focused on offering the “chicken” without the bird, click here.
Is plant-based chicken right for your restaurant? My answer depends on your existing menu, customer feedback, and your vision. As always, at Henny Penny, we offer complimentary customized needs analyses to our customers, as well as our prospective customers. Any one of our 90+ global distributors would welcome hearing from you and learning more about your food service dreams. Just click here to locate your nearest Henny Penny distributor partner.
Faux Chicken: To Fry, or Not to Fry
Most of the plant-based chicken products on menus today are fried. Just like with animal protein, vegan chicken must be fried to crispy perfection, but without burning, which can happen. For plant-based chicken, I recommend the Evolution Elite open fryer. It comes in electric or gas models and features 1 to 4 wells, which can “protect” plant-based chicken from cross contamination with oil used to fry animal protein in other vats. What’s more, the Evolution Elite uses 40% less oil than other comparable vats.
Test it; Try it out!
Thanks to the proliferation of ghost kitchens, restaurant operators can test new, innovative menu items and explore new markets without the hefty price tag typically associated with trialing new products. If you think you’ve got a winning new product but aren’t sure whether it will be a hit with customers, simply add it to your ghost kitchen menu. If sales go through the roof, you’ll know you’ve got a winner. If sales fall flat, just take it off the menu. That’s the great thing about ghost kitchens. They’re an ideal testing platform.
Elevate Your Flavors
Great food has always been synonymous with great-tasting flavors. In 2022, “different” is going to play a role in flavor experiences. Don’t be afraid to incorporate new flavors into your menu, whether that’s via a brine, an injectable sauce or marinade or new dipping sauce to help create an innovative culinary experience. In terms of unique flavors for 2022, there are several international flavors making headlines, including Asian, Caribbean, Polynesian, Mediterranean-inspired flavors and more.
In 2022, alternative sources of protein will continue to gain momentum and interest among restaurant operators and consumers alike. Although the USDA hasn’t approved the sale of lab-grown meat—also referred to as cultured meat—in the U.S., the regulatory agency appears to be heading in that direction as it’s considering how best to label meat and poultry cultivated from animal cells. Cultured meat is already gaining traction with environmental groups who like the idea of slaughter-free meat cultivated from animal cells. What does the future hold for cultured meat? Well, it’s hard to say, but at the very least, it’s important that restaurant operators know it’s on the horizon.
Serve Up: Consistency
Finally, remember that no matter what you’re serving, consistency is king with customers. It’s also the answer to how everything we’ve already discussed will benefit your bottom line. Customers will keep coming back for more if you consistently keep delivering the same quality product every time.
The fry has got to be just right every time to ensure the chicken’s juicy inside, crispy outside, hot, and fresh. Here are my top picks for frying chicken consistently.
If you’re a smaller operation with a single restaurant or a few, I have two recommendations:
4-Head Pressure Fryer.
Although it’s a pressure fryer, it’s engineered to be versatile. That means you can open fry using the same unit. Just leave the lid open and select a different program. It also comes with built-in Automatic Pressure Assist, which is exclusive to Henny Penny alone. Pressure Assist uses an external means of developing pressure for small product loads that otherwise would not build optimum pressure levels on their own. So, if you just need to pressure fry one order of chicken for one customer, Pressure Assist allows you to do that instead of letting a full load of product go to waste. To learn more about all of the 4-head pressure fryer’s features, click here.
FlexFusion Platinum Series Combi Oven.
This versatile combination convection oven, steamer and grill has it all and does it all. It fits the bill no matter if you need to bake, braise, steam, sous vide or grill your chicken. The Combi Oven truly does offer the flexibility small restaurant operators need without taking up valuable kitchen space. Click here to find out more and check out various models.
Velocity Series Pressure Fryer.
This powerful machine can cook 8-heads of chicken in 25% less oil than other high-volume fryers, plus it replenishes oil automatically from an onboard reservoir, which means there’s no manual add-backs and fewer disposals. Best of all, because it filters automatically after every cook cycle, it extends the life of oil by nearly 4 times compared to other high-volume fryers. If that weren’t’ enough, because Henny Penny’s products are “engineered to last,” this fryer’s heavy-duty stainless steel fry pot comes with a 7-year warranty. Click here for more info and available models.
SmartHold Humidified Holding Cabinet.
SmartHold distinguishes itself by creating the perfect conditions for holding almost any food up to 200% longer than most holding cabinets. Its automatic humidity control maintains any humidity level between 10% and 90%, ensuring your chicken stays crispy, juicy, and fresh for hours at a time. Click here for all the features and available models. With today’s labor shortages, cooking in large batches and holding to serve can be a game changer for high-volume restaurants. You need a lot less people in the kitchen.
As I wrap up my predictions for chicken in 2022, I’d just like to add that the fact that poultry has now eclipsed pork as the number one protein consumed worldwide is proof positive that the future for chicken, in all its forms, is bright.
To help you on your way, be sure to sign up to receive the first in a series of three free chicken guides, filled with helpful tips from our chicken experts.
Finally, my hope for you, as restaurant operators, is to continue to utilize this versatile bird to consistently serve up innovative, unforgettably delicious chicken sandwiches, wings, nuggets, thighs, tenders and more every time!