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    Bird is the Word

  • Long an American staple, fried chicken today is getting more creative.

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    About 40 percent of quick-service and fast-casual restaurants feature fried chicken in some form on their menu, according to Datassential.

    Zaxby’s chicken tenders are served with one of nine sauces, including the original Buffalo flavor and ranging from mild Wimpy to the very hot Insane. The wings and boneless wings are covered in the sauces, and the wings come with celery and ranch dressing.

    Slim Chickens gives a Mississippi Delta twist to its menu, which consists largely of items using chicken tenders or wings. The Fayetteville, Arkansas–based fast-casual chain employs a proprietary blend to lightly batter its fresh chicken, which is always cooked to order. Diners can choose to have their tenders shaken in one of the 15 dipping sauces.

    “That makes it unique, and guests love it,” says Sam Rothschild, chief operating officer. “And we’ll still give you a dipping sauce on the side.”

    Dishes typically take about six minutes to prepare, but most customers—even those in the drive-thru lanes—understand it takes longer to make hot, fresh food, he says. Exterior signs reinforce that message.

    One unique dish at the playfully named Slim Chickens is its Chicken & Waffles, which has three tenders atop a waffle with butter and syrup. “We worked on that several months and learned how to execute it on a high level,” Rothschild says. “The response has exceeded our expectations.” Some customers have even ordered their tenders shaken in hot sauce for the Chicken & Waffles, with the syrup on top, he adds, combining sweet and savory with heat.

    Wings are the star attraction at restaurants like Buffalo Wings & Rings.

    “A lot of people do wings different ways,” says executive chef Elliot Jablonsky, “but we do it in the classic tradition.” The wing is fried without breading, allowing the skin to keep in the juices while creating a crispy exterior.

    The wings at the Cincinnati, Ohio–based company’s units are typically par-cooked and later finished. “Instead of six or seven minutes, you can serve them in two or three minutes,” the chef says. “It’s not only faster, but it yields a crispier skin when you fry it again.”

    The chain offers 13 wings sauces, five heat levels, and either Blue cheese or ranch dips with celery to cool the tongue. The most popular sauces are the classic Buffalo and the Roasted Garlic, while others include Lemon Pepper and a couple of barbecue options.

    “Our sauces are proprietary, and creating them is a painstaking process,” Jablonsky says. “How you have heat at the beginning and at the end, the relationship between butter and hot sauce, the cooking method—[it] all makes a difference.”

    Few chicken-centric restaurants feature burgers on the menu, but plenty of burger places have premium chicken items on the menu. Wendy’s lightly breaded chicken, made with whole-muscle chicken breast, has been important to the company as a springboard for menu developments.

    “I would say it’s been one of our most fun platforms,” says Shelly Thobe, director of culinary product innovation at the Dublin, Ohio–based company. “It’s just a great palette to work with.” Wendy’s menus regular homestyle or spicy breaded chicken, as well as grilled chicken.

    Among the chicken LTO creations have been the Tuscan Chicken on Ciabatta with roasted tomato aioli and sliced Asiago cheese, and the Pretzel Club Chicken sandwich, featuring Muenster cheese, Cheddar cheese sauce, and honey mustard on a pretzel roll. Since chicken has “kind of a blank flavor, you have to make it inherently cravable,” Thobe says. That’s why Wendy’s marinates its chicken before breading it with additional herbs and spices. “We make sure we infuse flavor everywhere.” In addition to sandwiches and wraps, the chicken breast is also part of or an add-on to salads.

    Another burger chain, Checkers Drive-In, is testing a premium chicken sandwich to add to its menu, which already includes regular and spicy chicken sandwiches. The test began as a premium chicken strip using a new marinade and high-quality battering system. While it was a great strip, says Ryan Joy, senior director of research and development, it was not significantly different from those offered elsewhere.

    “Everybody has them, everybody loves them, but unless they’re really different, they’re not worth doing,” he says. Instead, the Tampa, Florida–based company, which also owns Rally’s, has decided to put the tenders on a sandwich, and that seems to be having a more positive outlook.

    Joy expects to come up with 30–40 ideas for the tenders sandwich, which will then go through consumer testing. The chicken tenders will be similar to those initially introduced, and “most of the flavor with these comes from the marinade,” he says.

    The fact that Checkers and Rally’s customers are looking for new, creative items from the company makes it easier to develop these kind of products. “They trust us to do that, and that makes my job a little easier,” he adds.