In an increasingly health-conscious society, the word fried on a menu is sometimes enough to send some consumers running for the doors. And fried chicken, one of the staples of American comfort cuisine, hasn’t been spared the bad wrap for its nutritional value.

But can a fried chicken concept balance its savory breading with health? Aaron Noveshen, founder and CEO of consulting firm The Culinary Edge and cofounder and CEO of fast-casual chicken concept Starbird, thinks so. Starbird is founded on the principle that fast food can be reimagined so that diners can eat their favorite foods both conveniently and healthily. Here, he explains how innovation allows the brand to reconcile fried chicken with nutrition.

Why did The Culinary Edge choose fried chicken as the platform for its own proprietary brand?

We did a lot of analysis of the industry, and chicken was trending dramatically up in the marketplace. There was a lot of innovation, not only in the quick-service space, but also in the areas above, in casual and fine dining and food trucks. We saw a gap in the marketplace for a differentiated fried-chicken position, and this was something we wanted to go after.

How much room for innovation is there with fried chicken? 

To say there is a limit on innovation in anything is a misnomer. Innovation can be applied to any food product or market segment. At The Culinary Edge, we are an innovation agency, so we are agnostic to what innovation gets applied to. We can apply our process to any segment and any food type.

What makes high-quality chicken?

First, it’s the sourcing; where the chicken comes from and how it’s raised affects the quality of the meat. Secondly, fresh product versus frozen; we use 100 percent fresh chicken. Freezing affects cellular structure and the quality of the product.

We use a brining process to ensure juiciness and increase flavor in the chicken, and then our proprietary breading and battering process and seasoning all apply. The oil we fry the chicken in is a rice bran oil, which has a really clean flavor and helps create a much lighter fry, which makes our chicken what we call “positively delicious.” Every aspect down to oil temperature is both an art and a science to make chicken taste delicious.

What are some misconceptions consumers have about fried chicken? 

Nowadays, there isn’t a universal definition of healthy. Some people think that fried chicken is unhealthy, like anything that’s fried. Depending on how people choose to define health for themselves, it might be a misconception or it may be their personal truth. We are firm believers in total transparency and letting people know exactly where our chicken is from, how we handle it, what makes it special, and what we do to make it both delicious and healthful.

What are some outside-the-box flavor profiles or pairings you’re exploring at Starbird? 

We do a crispy chicken Banh Mi sandwich, which is really fun. We are doing a summer promotion right now with an Heirloom Tomato and Basil Chicken BLT, which is selling really well. We’ve got a Chicken and the Egg breakfast sandwich with bacon and pimento cheese, which is a signature item.

What has been customers’ response at the first Starbird location?

We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response. We have people coming in multiple times a week at different dayparts. We’ve had incredible traction on Yelp and social media. We are creating a community of loyalists who love that we have created something that fits their desires and lifestyles and is differentiated from anything else they can get on the market. We opened in the 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco in July, and we are opening another location in September. We will have four locations operating before the end of this year.

Anything you plan to tweak with the upcoming new locations?

We are looking at our real-estate strategy. In trying to change the paradigm on convenience, we are figuring out the best way to address the combination of dine-in, takeout, delivery to car, and delivery to home or office and balance how we fulfill those different need states.

How do you plan to evolve the Starbird menu over time?

We’re always refining everything we do all the time to make sure we can consistently produce delicious food. We’ve noticed that our salads are huge winners for our brand, and we are looking at expanding that side of the menu because people see our salads as being a step above the competition, and we’re getting a lot of traction in that area.

Business Advice, Fast Casual, Menu Innovations, Story, Starbird