Marc Halperin: Resident F&B Expert | December 2010 | By Marc Halperin

Why Chicken Really Belongs on a Stick

A healthy, portable, multiethnic alternative to fried chicken is simple.

It’s been breaded, fried, broken into its constituent parts and pieces, and served in a bucket.

It’s been basted, grilled, broken into chunks, and layered over greens and vegetables.

It’s been dressed, pressed, formed into patties, slapped on a bun, and served as a sandwich.

And it’s been roasted, carved up, sliced, diced, and dumped in a delectable broth for use in various soups.

It’s really sort of extraordinary when you stop to think, just how much fast food and fast-casual chains have been able to do with chicken meat. But the options have continued to multiply as consumers’ appetite for the food remains insatiable. A March 2008 report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that between 1970 and 2005, per capita poultry availability more than doubled, from 34 pounds per person to 74 pounds per person. That’s a lot of bird, no matter how you slice and serve it.

Chicken is so commonplace that you might wonder what on Earth could possibly be left to do with it. But I suggest there’s one approach that, to this point, hasn’t been employed widely, if at all, in quick-serve settings: I’m talking about chicken cooked (and often served) on a stick.

I know what you’re thinking. “Skewered chicken? This is innovation?” But hear me out. We can probably agree that many consumers are looking for healthier alternatives to fried fare and meats that are generally higher in fat. KFC’s experience with grilled chicken, though far from conclusive, is good proof to start with. From there we need to determine what might increase the appeal of offerings that are prepared in healthier ways. My sense, based on our extensive survey work with Gen Y consumers at the Center for Culinary Development, is that flavor options and delivery mechanisms associated with grilled chicken may just be the two biggest opportunities for growth without cannibalizing existing sales. Serving chicken on a stick—grilled, flame-broiled, griddled, roasted, and given any number of interesting ethnic spice treatments—could generate a virtually limitless array of new offerings with the kind of portability and convenience consumers love.

Why the stick? Well, if a survey of street foods around the world, from satay to skewers, kebabs, Japanese yakitori, and other popular walk-away dishes, doesn’t convince you that this primitive utensil has staying power, maybe a trip to the All-American county fair will. When I ventured out to the Alameda, California, county fair a few weeks back, it seemed that everyone was eating from a crude wooden spear. There were corn dogs, frozen bananas, deep-fried Twinkies, Snickers bars, cotton candy, caramel apples. Everything in sight was served on a stick.

From a quick-serve perspective, the potential seems obvious. Take a piece of high-quality chicken breast and marinate it in any of dozens of kinds of ethnic flavor or spice combinations, spear it, and cook over an open flame that singes off excess, seals in the best of the bird’s natural juices, and imparts the meat with flavors that are memorable enough to induce repeated cravings.

If you're looking for the next big thing to do with chicken, try putting a stick in.

And if the idea of sending consumers away with a sharp stick in their hands doesn’t necessarily get you fired up, there are a vast number of ways to serve chicken that’s been prepared in this fashion.

At pizza chains, for instance, a skewer of chicken that’s been marinated in a pesto or spicy marinara sauce could be layered on top of a thin, crispy rosemary-olive oil flatbread or half a ciabatta roll to make an open-faced Italian sandwich.

At Mexican chains, chili-rubbed chicken could be speared, along with red and green peppers and grilled onions, and placed in or on top of a tortilla, layered over a salad, or served as a dinner plate with beans and rice.

And at a Mediterranean chain, what about a garlic-lemon chicken-and-falafel skewer served over pita with hummus, a bean salad, and some mixed greens?

And at chicken chains specifically, why not a bucket of skewers comprising a variety of flavor profiles, from smoky barbecue to honey-glazed to Cajun spice? As an alternative to the standard bucket of fried fare, this kind of offering could prove popular.

Traditionally, when I’ve talked about the value quick-serve chains might derive from appropriating ideas from the street foods of various cultures, I’ve been thinking about particular ingredients or menu items. In this case, though, the mechanism is the message. And that mechanism—the tried and true skewer—could prove a winner for any number of different concepts. In other words, if you’re looking for the next big thing to do with chicken, try putting a stick in it.

Marc Halperin

A classically trained chef who earned his Grand Diplôme d’Études Culinaires at Paris’s prestigious Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne, COO Marc Halperin brings considerable gastronomic expertise and more than two decades of restaurant-consulting and teaching experience to the table. Prior to co-founding CCD, Halperin’s culinary tenure included stints in such celebrated kitchens as those of Taillevent and Maxim’s in Paris, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and the Deer Valley Ski Resort in Park City, Utah, where he served as head pastry chef during the resort's inaugural season. Later, he was a chef instructor at Le Cordon Rouge cooking school in Sausalito, California, and at the California Culinary Academy.

Marc is a professional member of the Research Chefs Association and a member of the San Francisco Professional Food Society, and currently contributes each month to QSR Halperin holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and a Master’s in music performance from Boston University.