Menu Innovations | December 2010 | By Barney Wolf

Wake Up Breakfast Proteins

Brands across the country see success in adding chicken and turkey to breakfast menus.

There is an answer to the age-old question of which came first, the chicken or the egg.

It’s definitely the egg—at least when it comes to breakfast. Few morning menus are without them. But these days, chicken and another popular poultry protein, turkey, are increasingly popping up on a.m. menuboards at quick-service and fast-casual restaurants.

“Chicken and turkey are gradually making inroads, although change is going to take time,” says Dave Mulholland, director of brand sales for U.S. Foodservice, a Chicago-based national food distributor. “Breakfast is more habitual than any other meal.”

Breakfasts served at most quick serves generally feature eggs—usually scrambled or fried—along with pork products (bacon, sausage, and ham), and, typically, some type of carrier, such as a bun or English muffin.

“A lot of menu development is copycat when it comes to breakfast,” says Eric Giandelone, director of foodservice research with Mintel International, a Chicago-based consumer product and market research firm. “The traditional notion of breakfast is pork-centric and egg-centric, so not too many chains have risked going beyond that.”

Fast feeders generally lagged behind in breakfast development during the recent economic slump, but 2010 has been a year for breakfast innovations.

“A lot of operators are getting up to speed with menu offerings,” Giandelone says, “so in a couple years, when they are more comfortable with their menus, they will look to alternatives such as chicken or turkey.”

Most customers already view chicken and turkey as better for you, Mulholland says.

“Any time you incorporate turkey or chicken, it is going to be perceived as a healthier dish,” he says, “and that is something an increasing percentage of the public is seeking.”

One region of the country where chicken has not been a stranger to breakfast is the South, where chicken and biscuits and chicken and waffles have long been favorites. Fried chicken on a biscuit has been available for years.

“Chicken biscuits are grab-and-go, packaged versions of traditional Southern Sunday suppers,” says John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

“Long before McDonald’s started stuffing McMuffins, we were stuffing biscuits with patty sausage, bacon—and yes, sometimes fried chicken—wrapping those bundles in tin foil, and selling them from country store counters,” he says.

The roots of quick-service breakfast biscuits date to 1972, when two Hardee’s franchisees, Jack Fulk of Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mayo Boddie of Norfolk, Virginia, began baking made-from-scratch buttermilk biscuits to sell to morning commuters.

There is some debate whether Hardee’s officials were pleased or not with this unauthorized move, but the idea caught on and eventually spread to other franchisees.

“It has been served continuously in Southeast markets since then,” says Brad Haley, executive vice president of marketing for Hardee’s parent, CKE Restaurants Inc.

By the mid-70s, some small, Southern quick-service concepts had started experimenting with the tradition of putting meat in a biscuit. The chain now known as Biscuitville was serving biscuits stuffed with country ham before 1975.

In 1977, Fulk and former KFC president Richard Thomas launched Bojangles’ Chicken ’n Biscuits, which featured Cajun-spiced fried chicken and Fulk’s recipe for biscuits, making breakfast important from day one.

Then Bojangles’ decided to place the chicken in a biscuit, and the quick-service breakfast chicken biscuit was born.

“I don’t know the exact year, probably in the late ’70s, but the Cajun chicken filet biscuit was already on the menu when I arrived in 1984,” says Eric Newman, executive vice president at the company. “It is by far the highest-selling biscuit we have.”

The Bojangles’ chicken biscuit uses a marinated chicken filet that is breaded and fried.

Making biscuits from scratch requires skill from early rising employees.

“Baking biscuits is a very specialized job for a fast food chain,” Haley says. “It is not like dumping fries in a fryer. There is real baking going on, and people are hard to find and train to do it right. A great biscuit just enhances the chicken.”

It took another chain born in the South, Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A, to bring breakfast chicken biscuits to other regions of the country. The chain, which began its growth in malls, started serving breakfast after its first freestanding store opened in 1986.

Today, Chick-fil-A is in 38 states.

But the fried chicken biscuit truly became a national breakfast item in early 2008 when McDonald’s rolled out its Southern Style Chicken Biscuit.

The entrée featured an all-white-meat chicken breast patty served on a biscuit that is par baked or, in some markets, made daily from a mix.

“We are interested in other protein options for breakfast, and this was a good fit,” says Ashlee Yingling, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp.

The suggestion for the biscuit came from an operator in Atlanta.

“It started as a regional idea, but as with many ideas, like sweet tea, we looked at the bigger picture,” Yingling says. The chicken biscuit went into tests in several markets, and it did well with all demographics, leading to its addition to the national menu.

The biscuit has added “significantly” to McDonald’s breakfast menu, which accounts for about a quarter of restaurants’ total sales.

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