Lee’s quest to match 2020’s boom is being challenged by a chicken category that’s filled to the brim, especially with the entrance of numerous virtual brands from major players on the full-service side like Chili’s and Applebee’s. Cooper finds the idea of a virtual concept interesting, but he insists that Lee’s will continue to focus on what it does best instead of “trying to make lasagna in one oven and fried chicken in another.”
Cooper explains that convenience and cost are important when consumers make decisions, but ultimately, the deciding factor is based on taste, which he believes Lee’s excels at with its fresh, never frozen chicken. He considers the hand-breaded, honey-dipped, pressure-cooked approach a “complicated and delicate dance” in the back of the house.
“To get our chicken tasting like it tastes is very, very unique to us,” Cooper says. “I think that's going to be the longer-term challenge—can they really get the taste right? And are they willing to do that complicated and delicate dance in the back of the house to get that product really well.”
“We see [virtual brands] as competition, but we also know that the customer ultimately decides," he adds. “I think there's going to be a lot of trial. And I think if you're really just looking for availability and someone that can deliver it quickly, if a Lee’s is not in your market, then there's other options out there. But I like our fresh, never frozen hand-breaded, honey-dipped, pressure-cooked approach that I think sets us apart.”
The growing chicken category has contributed to a lower supply, causing prices to soar.
Using data from market research firm Urner Barry, the Wall Street Journal reported in early May that boneless chicken breast was trading at $2.04 per pound compared to roughly $1 per pound last year. The average price is approximately $1.32 per pound.
Cooper says Lee’s doesn’t want to keep increasing prices based on inflation, so it’s tried to take a deeper look and mitigate where it can. But at the end of the day, prices are in flux and it’s just trying to stay ahead. He views the supply chain as lots of differently sized cogs, where even the smallest turn can make everything else move. He used this example: If it takes one day longer to get pepper from India, then it takes one day longer to get the spice into a recipe, and so on, until it starts to become a noticeable issue at the store level.
Lee’s has tried to keep its operators up to date on what the next three to five months will look like, and they’re leaning on all of their suppliers—from chicken to flour—to provide the right information. According to Cooper, the brand prefers to evaluate products in three basic ways in this order: availability, consistency, and then pricing.
“So we have to make sure that we have the right kind of chicken or tenders or green beans, mashed potatoes, the breader, and then we need to make sure it's consistent so it's all the same size, and part of that is contractual and we negotiate with those suppliers, but part of that is just making sure that we're communicating with our operators,” Cooper says. “And then lastly, which is very important, is the price of those things. But I think we've agreed as a brand that we've got to have the product available. It's got to be a consistent size and quality. And price is also in the top three important things.”