Fried chicken has its roots in the South, which explains why most chicken concepts boast side dishes that are similarly influenced by the rich, indulgent comfort foods common in Southern cuisine. It’s no different at Church’s Chicken, the Atlanta-based quick serve with more than 1,000 locations in the U.S. and a bone-in chicken product that’s been enjoyed by customers for 65 years.

But what is different at Church’s is the range of sides that the brand offers customers to pair with that fried chicken. Church’s features 12 side options, including standards like french fries and mashed potatoes but extending to outside-the-box options like fried okra, jalapeño cheese bombers, spicy rice, sweet corn nuggets, and Southern-style green beans.

Jennifer Chasteen, Church’s vice president of brand strategy and activation who heads up the company’s research and development, shares her strategy as it relates to developing side dishes that pair with its popular Original Chicken.

Where does inspiration for Church’s side-dish development come from?

[It’s] having those Texas roots. Jalapeño and spice and flavor are part of our culinary guardrails. That happens to be an area where we do a lot of innovation work, in addition to the regular everyday menu.

How do you balance tradition and innovation on the menu?

I think it’s top of mind in broader foodservice; the idea of comfort food is very mainstream at this point. But again, in innovation, I think we’ve done a nice job of being able to tie back to our roots. To give you an example, the jalapeño is an original menu item that dates back to way back when; guests have been squeezing jalapeño juice over our chicken for spice and heat for 65 years. So we take that jalapeño and add it into various configurations and items. That’s where the jalapeño cheese bomber came from. It’s one of our most popular unique sides.

What do you think customers want in their side dishes?

Consumers are telling us that they want more choice and flavor for their food dollar. We look to side-item variety as a way to deliver on that, and we find that it creates more reasons for visit frequency outside of our signature fried chicken. For us, we have been focused on delivering that flexibility around sides, both in choice and abundance; our most recent promoted meal has been a $5 Real Big Deal that gives guests a choice of any two sides. While mashed potatoes remain the most popular side item that we sell, guests are telling us that they want a variety and different choices, and not just one, but two sides. And not everybody is able to do that at a $5 price point. What you’ll see from us in the coming year is continued innovation and LTO introduction around sides to complement our various programs.

How much does health play a role in innovation?

I’ll tell you, first and foremost: The product is indulgent. We’re not shying away from the fact that we sell fried chicken that folks have loved for 65 years. At the same time, certainly having things on the menu that are a little more healthful, if you will, is an opportunity. I choose to look at that with additions like the regional favorites that we added earlier this year, with the Southern-style green beans—that’s an everyday offering now in many [Church’s locations] that does give you a nice green vegetable that isn’t prepared in a fryer. Will you see salads on the menu any time soon? Probably not.

What’s the process like for developing sides that complement fried chicken?

It depends on the offering, but I have a really unique bone-in innovation platform, for example, that is our Smokehouse Chicken. It’s an unbattered, unbreaded half chicken—it’s nearly a pound of chicken. That smokehouse flavor profile literally tastes like it was prepared in a smoker in your back yard. We’ve taken that profile and we have a number of innovations that would apply it to side items. We can draw upon those flavors and extend them in very different ways through the side-item platform.

How do you view the role of the side dish in the future?

I think it’s about snacking. Obviously as consumers’ meal patterns have shifted and those lines between breakfast, lunch, and dinner have really blurred—and the idea of things that are not a complete meal but that can be grabbed on the go and taken with you—I think side items can certainly play in that territory. That’s something I would look to for future innovation for Church’s.

Fast Food, Menu Innovations, Story, Church's Chicken